Illustration by Jessica Turner

It’s 2 a.m., and a figure in dark clothing slips through an unlocked gate into a backyard in Lake Highlands. He finds the expected envelope of cash and leaves a package behind. The transaction is complete.

The person who slinks away doesn’t consider himself a “drug dealer.” He’s selling vaping products, and his customers are Lake Highlands High School students.

Dealers make their deliveries to bedroom windows or home mailboxes at an agreed-upon hour. In addition to hardware, many packages include hemp-derived Delta 8 and dab weed, a form of concentrated marijuana, both consumable via vape pen.

The Lake Highlands mom who shared this story last week echoed a dad who came to Advocate in 2013 pleading for help. Kids at the high school were using then-new products called e-cigarettes in campus bathrooms, their cars and their bedrooms at home, he said. He wanted to bring awareness to parents, teachers and other authorities, and he wanted students to understand the risks they were taking.

Back then, teens on campus admitted wide use of what are now commonly called vape pens. None wanted their names used but said vaping products were easy to purchase legally as 18-year-olds, or illegally using fake IDs or with the help of older friends. Unlike the days when smoking in the parking lot was reserved for teens with a risqué reputation, kids in every sport and leadership group on campus were vaping, they told me.

Students at Lake Highlands High School today say vaping is as prevalent now as it was in 2013, although the age to legally purchase vaping products was raised to 21 in 2019. Stress and isolation due to the pandemic only added to their search for anxiety relief, some say.

“It’s kids across the board doing it,” said one student, who asked not to be named. “You could be on A honor roll or the worst kid in the school. I don’t think there’s a category for it. I just think if you like it, you’re going to do it, and if you’re in a group of people, you are going to join in. I think most parents know it’s going on, but I don’t think they are aware of how bad it is. I know a lot of kids who’ve been caught multiple times, but they just keep vaping.”

“Seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds want to do what they want to do,” the student continued. “Usually when kids are caught, they go to CMLC (Richardson ISD’s alternative school, the Christa McAuliffe Learning Center). Kids know it can be dangerous and harmful to their bodies, but they think they know what they are doing.”

Another student agreed that vaping is common at LHHS but took issue with the mom’s account of dark figures sneaking around at night to deliver forbidden packages.

“Most of the time the dealers will just give it to people out in the open and get paid via Venmo,” the student said. “Many do not consider it a big deal.”

Here’s how e-cigarettes work.

Research has improved since 2013, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) now says e-cigarettes are unsafe for kids, teens and young adults. Most e-cigs contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and harmful to adolescent brain development, they say. They recommend not use vaping products containing THC, the chemical responsible for marijuana’s psychological effects, and not obtaining vaping devices from informal sources such as friends, family or online dealers.  Young vapers are more likely to smoke cigarettes in the future, they say.

“These kids hang out at the LHHS parking lot, the rec center parking lot, B.B. Owen Park and White Rock Elementary,” one mom told me. “Snapchat is used to advertise fake IDs and drugs. Drinking, dealing drugs, fighting, depression and substance abuse are very difficult subjects, and they come with plenty of judgement when a kid gets a reputation.”

In addition to concerns about addiction and physical harm, parents say they’re worried teen users are jeopardizing their future if they’re caught by RISD officials at school or by local law enforcement in a public place. Unlike many other states, the THC oil often used in vape pens is illegal in Texas. Marijuana possession of less than four ounces is a misdemeanor in our state, but THC oil is a penalty group 2 controlled substance, so possession of any amount is a felony. Possession of less than one gram can result in two years in county jail and a fine as high as $10,000. RISD recorded 22 arrests during the spring of 2019.

“We started working on this challenge during the 2019-20 school year,” explained Dr. Matthew Gibbins, chief executive director of RISD Student Services. “Before that, we had difficulty tracking vaping data. If a student was caught with a vape on their campus, it was put into the system as a prohibited item.”

In the spring of 2019, RISD assembled an anti-vaping committee comprised of representatives from high schools and junior highs across the district. They dove into numbers and trends, and in 2020 they created an informational video for parents and students. You may watch it below and find additional resources here.

“The THC vapes are especially serious,” said Gibbins. “That gets beyond even our jurisdiction into ‘felony drug on campus’ charges. We also put ‘No vapes allowed’ signs around all our high schools and junior highs, and we really hit the message hard across our campuses.”

Last year was “a little different,” admitted Gibbins, and educating students during the pandemic took precedence. His team is ready to reinforce their message on the dangers of vaping when students return Aug. 17.

“We look at the vaping trends, we hear from our school administrators, we have a parent who’s a vaping cessation specialist with one of the hospitals in the area, we have a nurse on the committee – we try to keep it at the forefront of what we’re doing,” said Gibbins. “We also work with the American Heart Association. They are working on a guidebook, and they asked us to review it. Honestly, I think we are one of the leaders in the state in what we’re doing on vaping.”

The district has also amended the way it disciplines students caught with vaping products. When a student was found with a vape pen on campus in the past, RISD issued a 3-day in-school suspension (ISS). This year, first offenders won’t be removed from the classroom. Instead, the focus will be educational intervention to share the dangers of use and addiction. Even if THC is discovered in the pen, the goal will be to keep the student in an RISD classroom. School resource officers (SROs) will determine whether the student is arrested. Then, instead of being sent to a juvenile justice alternative education placement (JJAEP) as before, he or she will go to class at CMLC. After completing an all-day Saturday class on the dangers of THC, they’ll return to their home campus almost a month early.

“In 2019, the number of THC arrests caught us off guard,” said Gibbins, “and we expelled quite a few kids that year. We had to stop that. We had to change that.

“We’ve really prepared, and I think our principals are prepared across the district, to welcome the students back with more of a social-emotional mindset than ever before, allowing time for kids to adapt and get back into the campus culture. To, of course, focus on academics, but to make sure kids are ready to learn before we start hitting it day one.”

More than 37 percent of 12th graders reported using vaping products in a 2018 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse involving more than 44,000 students – an increase of 32% over 2017. Almost 18% of 8th graders also admitted vaping. If your teen needs help breaking the e-cig habit, the National Institutes of Health has resources here.