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Tobacco use down, e-cigarette use rising at school

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When a student at Greenwood Community High School is caught smoking, the first check is to see what is actually being smoked.

If the student was taking drags from an e-cigarette, an electronic cigarette that puts no smoke into the air and leaves no ashes on the ground, he or she is told to put it out and get to class. Parents are called.

A police officer can write a ticket, but depending on school rules, the student might not get in trouble at school. Yet.

Typically, the punishment for smoking or having cigarettes at school is a $120 minimum ticket. Students also will have to spend three hours at Saturday school.

If they get caught again, the fine goes up, and school privileges are taken away, Greenwood assistant principal Todd Garrison said.

But e-cigarettes are relatively new, and many schools haven’t updated student handbooks or policies banning students from using them, though state law says e-cigarettes are illegal for anyone under 18.

While principals can tell students to stop using e-cigarettes, they can’t punish or suspend students who get caught with them, Indiana School Board Association general counsel David Emmert said. If a student under 18 is using an e-cigarette, the police can be called to write a ticket. Some school districts also have policies that state students can be suspended or expelled if they violate state law, ISBA staff attorney Lisa Tanselle said.

The school board association is urging schools to catch up with the new technology in order to keep students from lighting up e-cigarettes between classes, Emmert said.

During the past several years, fewer students in Johnson County have been caught with cigarettes and tobacco at school.

One concern of health officials and schools is that more teens are using e-cigarettes instead.

Greenwood City Court, which collects the fines when a student is ticketed for tobacco at Greenwood schools and from some of Center Grove’s tickets, had two teens come through the court for tobacco use last year, down from 85 in 2009, Judge Lewis Gregory said. Franklin City Court also is processing fewer tobacco tickets, but exact numbers weren’t available, Judge Kim Van Valer said.

At Greenwood Community High School, four students have been caught with tobacco this school year, which is the same number of students busted last school year, and down from eight students in 2010. But Greenwood is finding more students using e-cigarettes, and Garrison wants to update the school district’s policy so e-cigarettes are banned from the high school as well.

“We just don’t want kids sitting around puffing smoke on electronic cigarettes,” Garrison said.

E-cigarettes are electronic, can look like regular cigarettes and are filled with liquid that usually contains nicotine. The e-cigarette converts the liquid into vapor, meaning there’s no smoke and no ash. The devices cost between $50 and $90, and packs of liquid for the devices cost about $10.

Most school districts already have policies banning tobacco or intoxicants. But those are too broad, as nobody really knows with certainty what’s inside someone’s e-cigarette, Emmert said.

“It’s not like a vegetable soup that has a can that tells you what’s in (the soup),” Emmert said.

Students need to know in advance what they can be punished, suspended or expelled for as part of due process. School districts that don’t have policies concerning e-cigarettes could add them as soon as their next board meeting. But until they add them, teachers and administrators are essentially trying to enforce rules that don’t exist, Emmert said.

“If they don’t have a board-approved rule, there would be nothing that the administrator could do,” he said.

Once a school bans a product, students who continually get caught using them can face additional consequences. At Greenwood, that means more Saturday school and the loss of driving privileges, Garrison said. Students also likely will rack up hundreds of dollars in fines and court costs.

Judges can consider a variety of factors before setting the amount of the fine, including whether the teens have been busted before for smoking. If they have, then the amount of the fine is likely to increase, and it can climb as high as $500, Gregory said.

When Gregory was seeing dozens of teens each year who were ticketed for smoking, he referred them to a program called the Tobacco Education Group, which worked with Partnership for a Healthier Johnson County. Students attended a two-day program for three hours each day to learn about the dangers of cigarettes, tobacco program coordinator Nancy Voris said.

But as fewer teens received tickets for smoking, Gregory made fewer referrals to the program, and many of the teens who were referred never showed up to participate, Voris said. Then, last year state lawmakers cut the funding that paid for the program, Voris said.

The Tobacco Education Group has since been replaced with a quit line, which contacts students and teens who have been cited for smoking. The teens speak with counselors, who talk them through how to create a plan to quit, Voris said.

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