Like many schools across the nation, Melrose High School found itself facing a public health crisis, vaping. In 2016, the staff at the Melrose, Mass., school slowly noticed an uptick in vaping in locker rooms and common areas like hallways.
“At first, many adults in the building did not know what was going on,” said Bryan Corrigan, the school’s assistant principal.
But as staff became more aware of the problem and tried to stop it, students became stealthier – and almost exclusively started to vape in the bathrooms.
“It was happening all hours of the day,” said Corrigan. “We were seeing students congregating in the bathrooms. Many students started to report that they did not feel safe going to the bathroom. Some worried that they were going to be blamed for vaping if a teacher walked in.”
The school was also seeing the destruction of its restrooms – from graffiti to broken doors and urinals to toilet paper shoved in sinks and commodes. While an extra hall monitor was hired and more frequent bathroom checks were conducted by staff, these were only Band-Aid solutions, according to Corrigan.
It wasn’t until Zeptive’s state-of-the-art vape detectors were installed in the bathrooms that the school began to make real strides in reducing vaping. “We noticed almost immediately that the bathrooms were empty,” said Corrigan.
Vaping does not discriminate
Melrose High School does not keep formal student vaping demographics, but Corrigan says the issue “transcends all of that.” “This isn’t an isolated problem,” he added.
Studies show that the dramatic increase in vaping among youth began in 2014 and 2015 when more marketing and social media of e-cigarettes began to target teens. Nearly 27.5% of high school students and 10.5% of middle school students reported vaping in 2019.
At Melrose High School, school administrators were initially seeing students use JUUL devices the most. “We were finding them everywhere,” said Corrigan. But after the ban of flavored vaping cartridges and pods, students turned to using nicotine and marijuana vapes.
The Melrose High School Parent Teacher Association (PTO) also took notice and knew they had to help.
“We had been hearing concerns from parents and students for a number of years but vape detectors were too expensive,” said Karolyn Ormond, Melrose High School PTO member. “Many students are not comfortable using the bathrooms during school. Can you imagine an adult being at work and not be able to use a bathroom all day? This had to be impacting a student's concentration and learning.”
Finding a sustainable – and affordable – solution
Melrose High School administered a multifaceted approach to address its vape problem, including partnering with the Melrose Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition on educational campaigns about the health risks of vaping. In addition to increased bathroom monitoring and connecting students with counselors to help them quit vaping, there were also policies in place. Students caught using e-cigarettes could face suspension or even expulsion if they were using THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
But school administrators knew they needed to add one more piece to their vaping prevention strategy: technology.
“We almost never catch a kid in the act of vaping – it’s virtually impossible. Kids are too quick and too good at hiding it,” said Corrigan. “We knew what we were doing wasn’t sustainable. We wanted a device with superior technology.”
“After meeting and interviewing with [Zeptive], I walked away knowing they had the expertise we needed in the detection of chemicals and changes in air quality,” Corrigan added. “They weren’t just putting out a device to put out a device. They were seriously trying to create technology that would actually work.”
The Melrose PTO shared those sentiments and willingly funded the purchase and installation of the detectors using parent dues. The sensors were installed in the second-floor boy’s and girl’s restrooms and were protected by cages to keep them from being moved. Cameras were also installed outside the bathrooms.
Families were made aware of the detectors via a letter from school leadership and were encouraged to have conversations with their children about vaping and these new devices.
“Staff cannot be in there patrolling every bathroom at every moment,” said Ormond. “When the school came to us with Zeptive, we knew it was a good option for us. We were glad to hear they made a system that is tamper-proof and well thought out. They were very generous and worked with us so we could afford their product.”
Progress and the road ahead
To date, the device has accurately detected vape in the bathrooms twice. Progress was halted due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic and the students transferring to remote learning. But when nicotine or THC is detected, the device sends an alert to the front desk staff, who then radio a hall monitor to check the bathroom.
Congregation in bathrooms and the destruction of property also stopped.
“Many kids were happy about [these detectors] because there was no more fear of going into the bathroom,” said Ormond. “Students feel relieved.”
The hope is to install more detectors once students return to school.
“Our plan is not to catch kids,” said Corrigan. “We don’t want students to get in trouble. We don’t want students to get suspended. We don’t want their educational experience to be interrupted. We want to deter this behavior. [And these devices] worked in that sense.”
Written by Kristin Erekson Barton, MA, CHES
Reviewed by Cindy Bistany, DHSc
1. Jones K, Salzman GA. The Vaping Epidemic in Adolescents. Missouri Medicine. 2020;117(1): 56–58. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7023954/.
2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2019, November 18). Youth Tobacco Use: Results from the National Youth Tobacco Survey. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/tobacco-products/youth-and-tobacco/youth-tobacco-use-results-national-youth-tobacco-survey