By Jennifer Jimenez, SPECIAL TO INDEPENDENT
With more than 24,000 students currently attending school in the Dysart Unified School District, collaborations are in place in order to combat a nationwide vaping problem that’s also affecting students in the Surprise community.
DUSD and the Surprise Police Department recognized the vaping epidemic is a community issue and has taken responsibility to try to stop this growing problem.
Director of Student Services Karen Winterstein said DUSD feels it must share information that is available about vaping, which is a problem district-wide. She said students are making some bad choices, and parents need to be aware of these choices and the consequences for them.
“Often times when it comes to vaping, we find parents are completely unaware the students are doing it, or the parents are the ones purchasing the items for the children because they think it is a safe alternative or a fun trend,” Ms. Winterstein said. “They think it’s just vapor. But as we all know when you ingest or inhale something that includes flavors those are chemicals and when you put that into your body along with nicotine or other drugs and they are not regulated, it can cause a serious problem.”
DUSD held an informational community session about the topic last spring. Additionally, Ms. Winterstein said the district has devoted time to make sure students are aware of the dangers in order to either prevent or stop the behavior.
“I traveled to all 19 schools for a Vaping 101 presentation and every sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade student was required to attend. Students were able to see what the products look like and the dangers,” Ms. Winterstein said. “The SRO’s (School Resource Officers) have been instrumental in getting information to the high school community and parents. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with the City of Surprise as far as making sure the messages are consistent and we get the message out with every teachable moment.”
Surprise Police Officer Chris Thomas said Dysart is allowing the SRO’s to give presentations to sixth- through ninth-graders on THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) wax and vapes, as well as the legal consequences.
“There was a national study done and kids admitted to starting to experiment around age 12 and a half,” he said. “And when I asked the freshman I dealt with last year when they started, they said two years ago, which is right along with the national standard. For kids it’s a cool thing to do, but it’s still nicotine and highly addictive.”
Shadow Ridge High School SRO Wendy Klarkowski said Dysart and the City of Surprise have a unique partnership which is like no other in Arizona. A diversion program was created in collaboration for all students who were engaging in vaping if only nicotine was found, instead of being criminally charged.
“The district reduces their suspension and a 30-day diversion program is implemented and run by including videos, tests, essay and daily community service at their respective campuses, which is created by the department,” Officer Wendy Klarkowski said. “If they complete the program successfully the remaining suspension will be forgiven, and no criminal charges are filed. This gives students an opportunity to help them learn so they don’t do it again and keep them out of the justice system.”
To date, there have been no repeat offenders with nicotine vapes who have been through the diversion program. At Shadow Ridge between five and six weeks of school days have been sparred through the diversion program, keeping students in class.
While most parents believe their kids haven’t given them a reason up to this point not to trust them, Mr. Thomas says parents need to start looking now. He said vaping offenders come from different walks of life, including student council, band members and honor roll students, too.
“These kids are doing the nicotine and marijuana vapes and don’t see it as a cigarette and think it’s not dangerous, and parents need to know vaping is too dangerous to just trust what you’re being told and look for yourself,” Mr. Thomas said. “Without looking for the devices since they are so camouflaged you are not going to know your kids are hooked on nicotine as they are illusive ways to hide it.”
Mr. Thomas said the scary thing is a kid can be doing it right in their house and a parent wouldn’t know if their kid is smoking something odorless. She said looking for things such as a thirstiness, frequent urination or nose bleeds can be signs.
Ms. Winterstein said she’s dealt with parents who said their kid said they were anxious and the reason they needed to vape. However, what they are really experiencing is addiction to nicotine or THC. Rehab services for teens are available now and that speaks to the seriousness of the vaping problem.
“Students don’t understand that one pod of a Juul vape it is the equivalent of smoking an entire pack of traditional cigarettes,” Ms. Winterstein said. “That tiny pod they think is so minimal, but that is not the case and we have to break that perception.”
Sgt. Tim Klarkowski said police simply can’t enforce their way out of crime as it must have first and foremost an educational component with vapes and THC. He said the education process must be collaborative between parents, the district and police. He added parents need to get out ahead of this and have an honest conversation with their kids.
Students are speaking up and reporting through methods DUSD has in place. Mr. Klarkowski said instilling the values of “see something, say something” in the future community leaders is imperative as they rely heavily on this relationship.
“The No. 1 tool in crime fighting is nothing on our belts or anything we carry in our cars, it’s our community members who are the eyes and ears and that goes a long way as a community moving forward,” Mr. Klarkowski said.
DUSD is making efforts to combat this growing epidemic in order to stop the behavior from occurring.
“The Dysart district is passionate about educating our students, parents and community about the growing nationwide vaping issue,” said DUSD Director of Communications and Public Relations Renee Ryon. “We are extremely proud to be taking such a proactive approach through our partnerships, education and diversion programs, and are confident that the community will be more aware of the dangers of vaping as a result of our coordinated efforts.”