Riverhead Schools: More than 60 students caught vaping by new detectors

It’s a scenario unfolding at high schools across America: A student heads to the bathroom with a vaping device hidden in a pocket. Unlike traditional cigarettes, the cloud of vapor produced from a device like a Juul fails to trigger a smoke alarm, creating a sanctuary area for students eager to vape during school hours.

As use among teens has increased since the devices became popular in recent years, school officials are aiming to find new ways to educate students on the health risks and prevent them from vaping on school property.

At Riverhead High School, a new device on the wall that looks similar to a smoke detector can sense the cloud of vapor as it floats toward the ceiling. It silently triggers an alert to security staff via a text and email message.

Riverhead has joined the list of Long Island school districts that have placed vape detectors inside bathrooms in an effort to combat e-cigarette usage.

Two devices were installed in September — one upstairs and another downstairs. The alarms, which detect the finer vapor created by e-cigarettes, were offered to the district at no cost through a pilot program from FlySense by Soter Technologies in Ronkonkoma, superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said.

When the sensor detects vape smoke, district security director Terry Culhane and other security members receive an email and text message notifying them where the smoke was recognized, so they can take necessary action, said Laurie Downs, school board member and health and safety committee member.

The sensors can also detect sound over a certain decibel level set by the district, she said, so that in the event of a fight, it can signal a rise in sound decibels. 

Dr. Henriquez said district representatives “felt an obligation to be proactive in the detection and education of our students with the hope that we could curb the use of these devices and substances and promote healthier lifestyle choices.”

She added: “We recognized that the proliferation of vaping and vaping products is becoming a widespread problem, not only across our district but throughout the county, state and nation, as well.”

By installing those detectors, it’s making it harder for the youth to vape.

Kelly Miloski

E-cigarette use among teenagers is now considered a health epidemic by the Food and Drug Administration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that in 2019, 27.5% of high-schoolers used an e-cigarette within the previous month, compared to 20.8% in 2018.

Soter Technologies CEO Derek Peterson said in an email last week that there are over 50 schools on Long Island using FlySense vape detectors and close to 1,000 devices have been deployed across the state.

The pilot program is offered to any school in need, Mr. Peterson said, and at any given time the organization could have up to a dozen schools enrolled in the program. Soter also offers grant programs for schools to get devices at a reduced price.

The devices are effective: Since the implementation, a total of 62 students have been caught using e-cigarette devices, Dr. Henriquez said, and the alarm has been set off over 150 times.

They’ve been so effective, in fact, that district administrators are looking to purchase more detectors, Ms. Downs said, but a plan has not been finalized.

Mr. Peterson said the sensors aren’t about catching kids in the act — it’s about changing student behavior.

“Kids may find ways to get around any rule,” he said. “However, FlySense has proven to be extremely effective and this is why schools across New York and the nation are embracing it. … Placing sensors in bathrooms and using technology is part of the solution.”

Some Riverhead students believe that vaping has become normalized in school and that the devices are easy to conceal from parents and teachers, according to data from the Riverhead Community Awareness Program. 

Vaping products for sale last year at a store in Mattituck. (Credit: Mahreen Khan)

Kelly Miloski, coalition coordinator for the Riverhead Community Coalition for Safe and Drug-Free Youth and community prevention specialist at Riverhead CAP, said CAP focus groups have indicated that Riverhead middle and high school students are vaping inside and outside of schools and the most popular location, she said, is in bathrooms.

“By installing those detectors, it’s making it harder for the youth to vape,” she said. 

First-time offenders caught vaping are referred to the Riverhead CAP program for Vape Education sessions in lieu of suspension, Dr. Henriquez said. Continued violations can lead to suspension.

Riverhead CAP has also partnered with the Suffolk County Department of Health to implement a vaping cessation program at Riverhead High School next month, designed to reduce student suspensions and help teenagers who are addicted to nicotine, Ms. Miloski said.

“We found when they’re just suspended, it doesn’t prevent them from using in the future, necessarily. But if we give them the skills, techniques and information about vaping, it’s more effective.”

Vape prevention is also being incorporated into fifth- and sixth-grade CAP programs at Pulaski Street Elementary School and other elementary schools. Ms. Miloski said sweet-flavored vape products attract teens, and they quickly become addicted to the nicotine.

In December, Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed state legislation banning flavored vaping products and vaping ads aimed at youth as part of his 2020 State of the State agenda.

The legislation would prohibit the online, phone and mail order sale of e-cigarettes for anyone besides registered retailers. It would also authorize the state Department of Health to regulate the sale of chemicals used in vaping-related products and ban the sale of vaping product carrier oils.

The legislation follows a ban set by the state Public Health and Health Planning Council earlier in 2019, which was blocked by acting state Supreme Court Justice Catherine Cholakis, who ruled that the council overstepped its authority reserved for the Legislature.

Every two years, Riverhead Youth Coalition/CAP surveys students in grades six, eight, 10 and 12 on drug, alcohol and risky behaviors. As their findings change, Ms. Miloski said, so will the actions of the nonprofit to prevent vape usage. 

“Right now, we’re finding youth are vaping in the bathroom, so we need to address that problem,” she said. “If we find youth are vaping elsewhere in the school, we’ll address that when it comes.”

Shoreham-Wading River school district officials approved a resolution Tuesday that urges the district, parents and the community to work together to prevent e-cigarette usage. 

Superintendent Gerard Poole said district representatives have spent the last few years “catching up to the scourge of vaping” that hit the community. 

“While we have taken a lot of efforts across the last few years — whether it’s student assembly, offering parent workshops or strengthening our health curriculum to include a more interactive preventive curriculum against vaping — those efforts are making an impact, but we want it removed,” Mr. Poole said. “Really, this resolution will give us an impetus to double our efforts.”

Mr. Poole later said that there’s a “good chance” that the district will pilot a detector this year to get a sense of how the alarm will function in the district. 

“We’ve been reaching out to the districts who have them to get some feedback from them,” Mr. Poole said Tuesday. 

He added that vape detectors, which can be “quite an expense,” are a relatively new product and have received mixed reviews from educators across Long Island.