Being a High School Principal is a tremendous opportunity. At the same time, it is a significant responsibility. I love the work I do. Some days are longer than others, but each day is different and unique. There is always something new to learn. Despite having done this work for over fifteen years, that statement is as true as ever; take for instance vaping. Two years ago, I would have thought vaping was something you do to try to revive someone who has fainted or passed out. Little did I know then, it would become such a pervasive and prevalent part of our work is school administration.
Last fall when we had our first vaping incident, the learning curve was steep. Parents seemed to be caught off guard as well. Some wanted to know where it was specifically prohibited in our Handbook. Many had no idea what we were talking about. Being active in the State Association (MSAA), I took to our listserve and began asking colleagues what they were doing to address vaping. Oddly, NHS seemed to be one of the first schools in the Commonwealth to bring forward the issue as a concern. Many of my colleagues across Massachusetts indicated they were not seeing it at their schools but asked that I share what other schools were doing. Fast- forward one month and the same listserve was exploding with requests for how to address and/or confront the issue of vaping, which many Principals were then and now calling “epidemic.”
One of the issues with vaping is it was not (and is not) an issue with any one segment of the school population. From athletes and vocational students to musicians and honors students, we have had issues with vaping across our school community. Last year, it was reported that AP students on a field trip were vaping on the bus. Since then, there have been students vaping is classrooms, locker rooms, school buses, the pool and on our playing fields.
One of the things that worries me as a High School Principal is the lack of information currently available regarding the health consequences of this trend. When I started my administrative career, cigarette smoking was an issue. Students would try to smoke in bathrooms, but were more easily detected as the smoke hung in clouds and remained a very prominent odor. Vaping does not do that; that is why I worry students feel so empowered to make the bad choice of doing it in and across the school. The problem is the serious health concerns about cigarette smoking are now know. Fewer and fewer young people elect to begin smoking cigarettes because the knowledge of the harmful effects is widely communicated. This is not true of vaping. So much is not yet known about its harmful effects. Another issue I see is students who think vaping is a safe alternative, are likewise becoming addicted to nicotine. Some have shared that vaping was no longer enough and moved to cigarettes. This is the polar opposite of what vaping was intended to do if you read the literature trying to promote the “safety” of vaping.
As I said I love the work I do. My work is made even more enjoyable having Ms. Psaradelis as our Assistant Principal. Her background in counseling makes her approach to issues like vaping a nice balance between consequence and education. Having been an Assistant Principal for a number of years, I know the one charged with discipline to be one of the hardest roles in the building. I am consistently impressed by the students who leave Ms. Psaradelis’ office feeling valued and heard, even when the outcome is not something they wanted. She seizes on teachable moments with aplomb.
In her role, she quickly took to researching the topic of vaping and has been an invaluable source of information on the topic to students, families and our faculty. She has attended professional development on the topic in addition to reading and researching it extensively. Students who vape are not bad people. They are simply making bad choices, the potentially harmful results of which we do not yet fully understand. Principals, myself included, worry about students. We want them to be and do the best they can. For me, vaping stands in the way of that.
We have tremendous supports for students here. Our School Counselors, our Social Work, Nurse, SROs, teachers and administrators are all here to support students to face whatever issue, vaping including, they are confronting. It is my hope that students, parents, families and staff who are reading this article will engage conversations about the topic. The refrain from adolescents is often the same when it comes to things we say to them young people should not do– “ but, everybody is doing it.” That might seem to be true; it is not. The answer from adults remains the same – “just because they might be, does not mean they should.”
By Dr. John Buckey