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By JOHN McBRYDE

Officials from both Williamson County Schools and the Franklin Special School District are concerned by what they say is an increase of students who are vaping on campuses and, in some cases, taking the habit to a dangerous level.

In just the past few years, vaping has been on the rise for teenagers across the country, and that includes a considerable number of them in Williamson County.

“Our students are certainly not immune to this health threat,” said Celby Glass, Safety and Attendance supervisor for FSSD. “Vaping is a dangerous trend on the rise, and we have had some students experiment with it on our middle school campuses.”

The issue has become so concerning in WCS that the district partnered with the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office in August to release a video that speaks to the dangers of vaping.

“Kids think it’s better for them [than tobacco usage],” WCS Safety and Security Director Mike Fletcher said. “They’ll say, ‘Well, I’m not smoking cigarettes, I’m not chewing tobacco. I’m vaping, which is better.’

“It’s been around long enough now we’re starting to see some evidence of vaping. Young kids don’t use vaping as it’s intended to be used. A Juul pod equals a pack of cigarettes. They’re consuming all the content in those things in a very, very short period of time, and that’s exposing them to pretty high levels of nicotine.”

Along about the time WCS was releasing the video and bringing specific attention to the dangers of vaping, the Center for Disease Control was issuing health alerts about the number of lung injuries and deaths from usage of vaping products. At last count on the CDC website, there have been 805 cases of lung injury reported from 46 states and one U.S. territory, and 12 deaths have been confirmed in six states.

There have been 36 cases of vapor-associated pulmonary illnesses in Tennessee, as of Sept. 26. It is unclear if any of those are in Williamson County, but Cathy Montgomery, director of the county’s Health Department, said the county is taking an aggressive approach toward the issue.

“We’re going out to schools — we have so many scheduled — to talk about the dangers of Juuling and vaping,” she said. “We are really trying to get a handle on this and get the education and information out.”

When it comes to vaping in middle and high schools, those students who are partaking are both ignoring the school districts’ policies that prohibit tobacco usage and flouting the state law that makes it illegal for anyone under 18 to purchase vaping products.

“It has gotten worse over the past few years because it has become more popular with teenagers,” said Jonathan Couey, a school resource officer at Renaissance High School who was part of the WCS video. “For some reason, it’s gotten pretty accessible to them too. They can order these things so easily online, and a lot of gas stations won’t check IDs.”

Kids are not buying vaping products at the handful of vape shops in Williamson County, according to Kevin Pierce, director of operations for Vapor Café in Franklin.

“The majority of violations have been at convenience stores and gas stations, not your local vape shops,” he said in an email.

“It has always been our strict policy that there is no exception for under-aged vaping. Before there was any legal age constraint, we restricted children under 18 years of age from even entering our store without a legal guardian. Under no circumstance will we sell any product to a minor, or to an individual we believe intends to provide such products to a minor.

“We utilize an electronic ID verification system. This allows us to not only ensure that our customers are of legal age, but that under-aged vapers are not using fake or expired IDs to circumvent the law.”

As for the health dangers of vaping, the CDC states on its website that most lung illness-related patients have reported a history of using e-cigarette products containing THC, the active chemical in cannabis. Couey and Fletcher said SROs are seeing a rising number of kids with THC cartridges that are typically purchased from the black market, and each officer has a test kit to check a student for THC usage.

“Parents need to do some research on these devices and see what they look like and what the risks are involved,” Couey said. “There is a lot of data coming out now, and a lot of kids going to the hospital. Parents need to be talking to their kids about this, because not only can they get in trouble at their schools with these devices, but if they get sick, they can end up in the hospital with irreparable lung damage.”

Upcoming FrankTalks to address vaping, substance abuse

Franklin Tomorrow’s October FrankTalks event on Oct. 7 will cover the topic of substance abuse in the community with a focus on vaping and opioid use.

The event will begin at 9 a.m. with a 30-minute coffee social, followed by the hour-long program at 9:30 at Franklin Police Headquarters, 900 Columbia Ave.

The panel of speakers includes Lyndsey Wilhelm and Brittany LaBorde, health educators with Williamson County Health Department; Sgt. Brant Pewitt, who supervises the Williamson County Sheriff Department’s school resource officers; Chief Deb Faulkner of the Franklin Police Department; and a representative from the Williamson Medical Center medical community.

This panel will discuss the presence of substance abuse in schools and the community while sharing how this issue is being addressed.

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