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Editorial: Rules need to be in place on e-cigarettes in schools

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Smoking is smoking, no matter the medium; and Johnson County school districts need to check the wording of policies to make certain all forms are covered. In particular, they need to make sure electronic cigarettes are defined and included with other forms of smoking.

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

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.

While principals can tell students to stop using e-cigarettes, they can’t punish or suspend students who get caught with them if school policies are not explicit. If a student younger than 18 is using an e-cigarette, 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, according to Indiana School Board Association 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, association President David 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.

If policies are not detailed enough, when a student 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.

But school districts need to address this gap and not leave it as a strictly police matter. The penalties for e-cigarettes should be the same as for tobacco products.

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. As Emmert put it: “It’s not like a vegetable soup that has a can that tells you what’s in (the soup).”

Students need to know in advance that they can be punished, suspended or expelled for using e-cigarettes, just as they would for tobacco use. School districts that don’t have policies concerning e-cigarettes should add them soon so that when student handbooks are distributed this summer, students will know what the policies and penalties are.

But until school boards add them, teachers and administrators are essentially trying to enforce rules that don’t exist.

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