Walker Co. Schools sees decline in vaping with detectors

More than half of high school students in Alabama reported trying vaping and 19% said they were currently using, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Published: Apr. 28, 2022 at 1:49 PM CDT
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WALKER COUNTY, Ala. (WBRC) – When Bart Lockhart became assistant principal at Dora High School two years ago, he didn’t think one of his top jobs would be policing bathrooms.

“These are the vapes we’ve collected so far [this semester],” said Lockhart, spreading the devices on his desk.

The situation got so bad, school administrators changed the bathroom policy and locked down some of the restrooms to limit places students could sneak and vape.

Walker County Schools Superintendent Dennis Willingham was getting similar reports from across the district. He said members of his Superintendent Student Council had a promising idea to stop their classmates from vaping.

“When I put the discussion on the table, they said they wanted something done about it. And I said, ‘What we can do about it?’ and they said, ‘Well, have you looked into vaping sensors?’”

Around the same time, District Technology Director and Safety Coordinator Patrick Gann was in the process of updating the district’s camera system when he found out the same company offered vaping detectors.

Vaping decides confiscated from Dora High School students.
Vaping decides confiscated from Dora High School students.(WBRC Fox6)

The district gave the OK and detectors were ordered and installed in every bathroom in every middle and high school in the county.

“If a vape sensor detects a change in temperature, a change in humidity and a change in chemical content in the bathrooms, it triggers an alert that goes to the administrator, their cell phone via text or email and [the cameras] records a snippet out in the hallway to try to catch that student coming out the bathroom,” explained Gann.

“We know exactly who did it, when it was done, and we’re able to call the student in, have the conversations that we need to have and whatever disciplinary actions that need to be done,” said Lockhart.

The Board of Education just changed the discipline policy and violators now get up to 20 days in the district’s alternative school. “The students are making decisions that are affecting their health and we want to do something that can help stop that,” said Lockhart.

Superintendent Willingham said it’s who’s influencing these decisions that shocked him, and led to a partnership with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office. “When I was talking to the students about it, I was asking how are kids getting these vapes and the students unanimously said, ‘The parents are buying them for them.’ And I just hit the floor, and said ‘What?’ I cannot believe the parents would buy something that’s so dangerous for their students.”

He added, “If an administrator catches a student vaping, with a vaping device, and the student tells the administrator and the school their parents bought it for them, we immediately contact the sheriff’s department and the sheriff’s department immediately begins an investigation.”

So far, their plan is working. “After the first wave we kind of realized that it was different and we had the sensors, we’ve really not had as many issues,” said Lockhart.

“I just spoke with a middle school principal who said because of vaping sensors, he has not had to deal with a vaping issue in two months,” said Superintendent Willingham. “Before the vaping sensors, he was having to deal with vaping issues on almost a daily basis.”

Superintendent Willingham said eventually, the district will get detectors in elementary schools because they’ve already caught 4th graders vaping.

Statewide, vaping is a problem and school districts are trying to find solutions to address this.

Cullman County Schools created a new policy regarding vaping with punishments that include community service and fines.

Homewood City Schools has taken an educational approach, increasing lessons about the dangers of vaping and made resources available to students and parents.

WBRC FOX6 reached out to Vestavia Hills City Schools, Birmingham City Schools, Jefferson County Schools, Cullman City Schools, Hoover City Schools, Mountain Brook Schools and Shelby County Schools about how they’re addressing vaping but have not gotten a reply.

Click here for CDC facts on the risks of vaping for kids, teens and adults.

Click here to read more 6 On Your Side Investigations.

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