BIG LAKE, Minn. — As Big Lake High School prepares to release for the summer, school leaders are hoping to reach a growing number of students who have become addicted to nicotine through e-cigarettes.
"We took an e-cigarette away from one student, a high school girl, and she said, 'I will have another one by tomorrow. I can't go without having an e-cigarette,'” said James Hintermeister, an investigator with the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office. “The nicotine addiction is just so powerful."
The numbers are stark. According to the CDC National Youth Tobacco Survey, high school students reported a 78 percent increase in e-cigarette in just one year (2017-2018).
In just the last few weeks, Hintermeister has confiscated at more than a dozen e-cigarette devices from students, and issued citations to even more.
"These are from both the high school and the middle school,” Hintermeister said, pointing to devices that take on many different shapes. “I know there's one from a 12 year old.”
The district has stepped up efforts to combat e-cig use in school. Bathroom doors are propped open and faculty are trained to identify the sweet smell of the vapor and look of the various devices.
"We have to have continuous staff development to keep up with the latest trends,” said Big Lake High School Assistant Principal, Angie Charboneau-Folch. "It's an epidemic across the US, every school is dealing with it."
But as schools try to find new ways to crack down on vaping, many, including Big Lake, are also trying to step up efforts to treat students.
“A lot of this vaping issue is really just an addiction to the nicotine,” said Charboneau-Folch. “And so we wanted to see what we could do to address the other side of it."
In response, the school’s social workers helped develop an online diversion program for each student disciplined for e-cigarette use.
“Most students that we work with know that they have a problem,” said social worker Megan Brown. "But they struggle with the addiction.”
The diversion program features nine different categories that students navigate online. Each one helps educate students about e-cigarette use. There are health advisories, videos and interactive features that help students understand the impact that vaping has on their bodies.
"It shows how it's impacting their brain,” said social worker Jenelle Stach. “It's just become so normal and routine for them and that was alarming to me."
The final step of the diversion is family notification about treatment options and quit plans.
"So far, the kids that have taken it, have said it was actually pretty useful information,” said Charboneau-Folch.
They hope parents feel the same.
"We worry about the kids over the summer,” Brown said. "Parents should just be mindful of what's going on with them because ignoring it isn't going to help."
Other school districts in Minnesota are also taking steps to bridge treatment and discipline. Big Lake based its diversion program on a system set up by Rogers Schools. The Edina and Westonka Public Schools share an alcohol and drug counselor who works directly with students on these issues.