Confiscated vaping devices at Fairview High School.

WESTWOOD A cloying scent drifts through the room when Whitney Ward opens the top file drawer of a cabinet at Fairview High School.

Ward reaches in and pulls out what looks like an elongated thumb drive. The device is about four inches long and is embossed with the image of a cartoon character.

Inside the drawer are a dozen more of the devices, some larger, some smaller, some resembling cell phones or cosmetics tubes.

The devices all are e-cigarettes confiscated from students caught vaping on campus. Ward, the assistant principal, says some kids are so casual about their use of the forbidden devices that “we caught one who had it charging on the school computer.”

The sweet smell and the sticky residue puddled on the bottom of the drawer come from the nicotine-laced liquid solution in the devices. The devices use a battery to heat and vaporize the liquid; the user inhales the vapor to deliver the nicotine to the lungs.

Studies have connected vaping to cancer, asthma and other maladies, not to mention addiction to nicotine. Yet teenagers continue to embrace vaping in larger and larger numbers.

School officials at Fairview noticed an increase in student vaping around the beginning of the academic year, Superintendent Jackie Risden-Smith said.

“Students were being caught vaping that had never had any violations in school before,” she said. The numbers were high during the first few weeks of the school year, and some students were brazenly vaping in school — “Students will duck their heads down in their jackets and take a puff,” she said. Bus video shows students vaping, she said.

Vaping has increased exponentially at Paul Blazer High School, principal Jamie Cambell said. “It is probably our number one behavior incident,” he said.

Among the reasons: teens don’t see any harm in vaping. “They think there’s nothing wrong with it. They can’t understand why it’s not permitted. They don’t get why it’s a big deal,” he said.

Parents also are seemingly clueless about the phenomenon. Parents have told Risden-Smith they thought the devices were computer peripherals being used for school work, she said.

The currently popular vaping device among teens is the Juul, which does look like a flash drive, and plugs into a USB port for recharging.

The response at both schools was education and policy revision. Students and parents needed to understand the health consequences of vaping and students, needed disciplinary consequences for violating school policy.

Fairview prefaced its revised policy with educational sessions for students and contacted parents, Risden-Smith said.

Violators now face confiscation of their devices, Saturday school and the requirement to create and deliver a presentation on vaping. Subsequent violations incur additional penalties, up to involving the court system.

Blazer’s penalties include two days of in-school detention for a first violation, three days for a second and suspension for a third. “They didn’t get why it was a big deal but over the year they’ve come to realize it is a very big deal,” Campbell said.

The deterrents seem to be working at Fairview, Risden-Smith said. “All the pieces coming together has helped with the decrease in vaping,” she said.

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Mike James is The Independent's education reporter. He has covered news in Northeast Kentucky since 1996.