E-cig presentation

Vaping Equals, the JCPS campaign to deter students from e-cig usage, was started in April. | Photo by Darla Carter

E-cigarette use is becoming an “epidemic” in Jefferson County Public Schools, school board members say. And at least one wants the district to push for tougher rules to deter students from vaping in class.

E-cigs like JUULs, which provide nicotine in the form of flavored pods, are becoming pervasive in JCPS classrooms, board member Chris Brady said. In some schools, nearly half the student body uses the devices, he asserted. (National data suggest around one in five students vape.)

And some students are capitalizing, creating a sort of black market: One student, he was told, got caught with $1,000 worth of vaping cartridges. Brady said the student intended to sell them to potentially underage classmates. (Like with traditional tobacco, a person has to be 18 to purchase e-cigs in Kentucky.)

When asked if the district knew of students selling e-cigs in schools as alleged, JCPS spokeswoman Renee Murphy asked Insider Louisville to file an open records request. Murphy did not respond to a follow-up request for any readily available data on how often students use e-cigs.

A medical trainer, Brady has routinely brought up vaping in school board meetings, stressing how addictive nicotine is for adolescents and asking for the district to do more to prevent student use. Brady wants JCPS officials to amend the district’s behavior handbook to include tougher punishment options for student e-cig and tobacco use.

Students caught using e-cigs cannot be suspended, and those caught selling devices can receive up to a five-day suspension.

Tobacco-related offenses are a step below alcohol and drug-related violations in the proposed student handbook, meaning principals can’t give some of the toughest punishments — up to 10-day suspensions — for something Brady sees as equally dangerous.

“Due to the pervasiveness of e-cig usage, school-level administrators should have the same range of discipline options regarding distribution of e-cigs as they do with alcohol,” Brady tweeted Wednesday morning.

Murphy, the district spokeswoman, said other districts “do not treat tobacco and e-cigs as a narcotic offense.” JCPS’ punishments are aligned with those of similar-sized districts, she added.

When asked for his reaction to the district’s logic, Brady said, “Good for (the other districts). I don’t care.” As a parent, he wants JCPS to “do everything in its power to discourage this behavior.”

“As a board member, I can tell you we are not,” he said. 

District officials misunderstand how pervasive and harmful e-cig use is in schools, Brady said in a Twitter thread.

Unnamed senior administrators don’t know that nicotine is a drug, one that is especially addictive for adolescents, Brady said. They don’t understand the quasi-black market for these products inside schools, and they don’t realize upwards of half the students in some schools use them, Brady tweeted. One administrator, he said, didn’t know what a JUUL was.

JCPS officials did not include top-level discipline as a response to tobacco distribution or use in the proposed handbook, set for a board vote next Tuesday. Brady said he will vote against the handbook if it isn’t amended to allow principals a wider range of punishments for e-cigs.

Brady turned to Twitter, asking his followers to ask their board members to push for more discipline options in the handbook.

“They seem to not be listening to the only Board Member who actually works in healthcare,” Brady tweeted. “Hopefully, they might listen to you.”

Board member James Craig agrees that vaping is “a huge issue,” but says he “absolutely” plans to vote in favor of the handbook as proposed.

“Kids today are able to smoke in classrooms without the teacher knowing about it,” Craig told Insider. A student can hide a JUUL in their sleeve, inhaling behind teachers’ backs and exhaling into their sleeve, he said. 

But extending the punishment range for e-cig violations could mean longer suspensions for students — a move that “seems to be contrary” to the district’s focus on reducing suspensions, Craig said. 

(Vaping) is a huge problem. But increasing punishment is not the answer,” Craig said. Instead of becoming punitive, he wants more resources to educate students — like what JCPS began in April with its Vaping Equals campaign. 

“The current administration did take the baby step of placing posters outside of restrooms discouraging e-cigs, but that’s hardly an effective deterrent,” Brady tweeted, indirectly touching on the awareness campaign.

But not everyone is seeing those posters. Two people — a teacher and a high school student — responded to Brady’s tweet, saying their schools did not have anti-vaping posters. Brady said about a half dozen others privately contacted him to say they also hadn’t seen the posters.

Murphy said the district is in the process of hanging the posters, reiterating that the campaign began in April. Brady said that every day that passes without the action is another where a kid could begin experimenting with e-cigs.

This article has been updated with additional comments from JCPS and Brady.