‘A Plea for Help’: Freeing our Schools of Substances

LAPEER, Michigan — She’s a good student with a lot to live for; she has people who love her, friends who couldn’t imagine school days without her; but, for a few harrowing moments on a Wednesday last January, she was laid out in an empty classroom at the Zemmer 8-9 Campus, unresponsive.

After she was found by a hall monitor, there was a mad scramble to get her medical attention and to find out what was causing her distress. 

Staff members first on the scene could not positively identify the student, because she could not respond to their questions. There were calls to 911, the emergency response team and the administration building.

Students who knew her initially wouldn’t talk because they didn’t want anyone to get in trouble. Their initial reaction was to keep secret that she had ingested a substance from a dab pen (similar to a vape) given to her by another student in the hallway. 

In this case, our staff acted quickly to ensure the student in distress received the care that she needed before the ambulance could arrive. There was an AED readied as the student’s pulse had become alarmingly weak.

At that moment, to those responding to this emergency, it felt like life and death. 

During this time, the student kept getting calls and text messages from a friend on her smartphone. A staff member saw the name, and immediately called every student with that name down to the office. A short time later, they were able to positively identify the student. 

For a school principal, there’s no instruction manual to turn to for situations like this one. For Zemmer principal, Dr. Jeff Stanton, it’s a day he will never forget.

“It was the first time in 21 years (in education) that I was scared,” Dr. Stanton said. 

Sadly, these types of situations are becoming all too common, as dangerous substances like THC (the substance in this case) find their way into schools, and are ingested through vape and dab pens that are increasingly marketed to young people. 

‘A Scary Day’

At any given time, there are four ambulances on call in Lapeer County. One school day back in 2019, all four of them were dispatched to Lapeer High School (LHS).

A short time before the calls went out, a group of four students shared a dab pen on a school bus traveling between Zemmer and LHS. One by one the students were found in areas throughout the building, their faces turning pale white and foaming at the mouth. 

One young girl took numerous hits off the pen and had to be rushed to the hospital. Members of the LHS staff on-site feared the student (who by that time was turning a dark shade of purple), might not survive.

“I still remember the paramedic say, ‘We have to go, she’s crashing,’” LHS Principal Doug Lindsay said. “It was a scary day.”

Once the ambulances arrived, the focus of Officer Wetzel and the LHS team shifted to finding the dab pen. 
“We had to find that pen before anyone else hit it,” Wetzel said.

Vaping by the Numbers

According to a survey conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2022, more than 14 percent of high school students nationwide are currently using vapes. Nearly half of that number reported using vapes frequently. 

While the percentage of middle schoolers using vapes is much lower, we have seen a significant increase in usage in that age group in recent years. 

Wyatt Stevens, the principal of the Rolland-Warner 6-7 Campus, said he has seen the level of curiosity toward vaping increase among students in his building, especially as use among adults and older siblings has spiked. 

“This is the time in which students start to experiment, and now they have that ability,” he said. “There’s more freedom when you transition from elementary school to the middle level.”

It’s no secret where they are getting them, either.

“Parents sometimes ask us where this stuff is coming from,” Dr. Stanton said. “They are getting them from the same places kids 25 years ago were getting cigarettes — older siblings, friends, and even sometimes parents.”
For some perspective, using the FDA’s usage figure with our district’s 9-12 population, that’s 238 students vaping on a periodic or even frequent basis. 

That is unacceptable. 

Hide and Seek

Part of the reason vaping has become much more prevalent in our schools, and schools across the country, is that the manufacture of vaping paraphernalia has advanced to the point at which they are very difficult to detect. Some are essentially smokeless and manufactured to look like common, everyday items — pens, strings on a hoodie, USB drives, smart watches, etc. 

“Kids know that these things are accessible to them, that they can acquire them,” said Shad Spilski, the District’s Director of Innovation, who also manages the District’s alternative high school. “As a parent, you might not even know it’s there.”

Before e-cigarette companies started getting more creative with the design and marketing of their products, many students had already found new and creative ways to hide vapes while in school. 

Many years ago, we had a staff member find a vape hidden inside the pages of a Harry Potter book. It was like the scene in the movie Shawshank Redemption, in which the film’s main character hid a small chisel inside the pages of a Bible. When the book was closed, no one would have known it was anything other than a JK Rowling classic. 

Fast forward five years and kids don’t have to go to such lengths to hide them. The problems are even harder to solve.

“They are easier to get and harder to detect,” Dr. Stanton said. 

Mr. Lindsay, asked to characterize how much of his day is reserved for disciplinary issues involving substances, was succinct.

“It could be all day, every day,” he said. “If we wanted to continue to go at it hard, it could be all day, every day.”

At LHS, vape and dab pens have become the most prevalent infraction leading to school suspension — by far.

It’s a similar theme at Zemmer, where 45 percent of all suspensions are related to substances.
Schools are fighting a losing battle. 

“I think we’ve reached the point at which we have to shift our focus to education, and a plea for help from the community,” said LCS Superintendent Matt Wandrie. “

Our resources are strained, our time limited and, at the end of the day, our main focus has to be teaching and learning. We cannot suspend our way out of this problem.”

Schools are placed in a difficult position in which the expectation is that students will be suspended, and yet often suspensions do not act as a deterrent — student behavior is often unchanged.

Officer Wetzel says the key is education. Our school resource officers have been very intentional about educating members of our staff so that they know what to look for. 

Recently, he spent some time with members of the district’s transportation staff, showing them what to look for on the bus. 

“You should have seen their faces; they had no idea,” he said. “They probably saw vape pens every day, and didn’t know what they were.”

The Consequences

School administrators have to make decisions every day, and lots of them. Many of those decisions involve student discipline and, as a general rule, are handled on a case-by-case basis because no two situations are exactly the same. 

That said, if you are found in possession of a vape, or a dab pen, or you are known to have provided one to another student, you will suffer serious consequences. 

As an example, a first-time offender caught with a tobacco-based product will face up to five days of suspension. Often, the suspensions are reduced if the student chooses to participate in an online intervention program. If it’s a marijuana product, the student will be issued a ticket by the school resource officer in addition to the suspension. Consequences are also more severe for subsequent offenses.

“It could become a misdemeanor, and from there the costs also go up,” said Mr. Lindsay. “The goal is to get them to stop the behavior.”

In addition to its renewed focus on education, the District is also exploring the possible use of metal detection wands as a deterrent for students who might consider bringing vapes or dab pens to school. 

“It’s a strategy that we are considering because these items are so easy to conceal,” Mr. Wandrie said. “It would not be a major expense to the District, and it might be enough to convince some students that it’s not worth the risk.”

The Conversation

It’s true that many parents are not comfortable talking to their children about vaping, or any other at-risk activity. Often, parents do not feel like they can speak persuasively on these difficult topics because they don’t know enough about the subject matter. 

One way to effectively communicate the seriousness of at-risk behaviors, like vaping, is to connect it to local examples. The problem is real, it’s right here and right now. This is the reason why we feel it is important that parents know the challenges we’ve faced, and continue to face, as a school district. 

It is important to know your facts: Vaping is NOT a safe alternative to smoking; young people who vape are significantly more likely to take up smoking; one vape can contain as much nicotine as is found in up to 50 cigarettes; finally, vapes are often marketed to kids with all types of enticing flavors, so it is normal that they would be curious about them. 

It’s also important that parents listen to their children — they don’t need a lecture. They need to know that you care and that you want to help them understand the dangers of vaping. 

Wyatt Stevens, a longtime teacher and principal in the District, said that it is important for parents to understand that dangerous substances are being marketed and sold to all kids, not just those who are considered “at risk” or prone to mischief.

“I had some of these kids in class when I was teaching,” he said. “They are not necessarily kids you would associate with drugs. It’s not always in the (student) population you’re looking for.”

Finally, understand that these items can come from home to school as easily as they go from school to home

“Parents need to realize that kids take these things home, they don’t leave them here,” Mr. Spilski said. “Having honest conversation is important. Honestly, suspending kids is the last thing we want to do for any kid. We want to work with them as a community to educate them.”

We Need Help

One of the biggest takeaways from the incident at Zemmer in January was the initial unwillingness of some students to share information — critical information at a time when a student’s health was at risk. 
We need staff, students, and parents working together to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep dangerous substances out of our schools. 

Here are some ways parents can help:

Discuss: We need parents to be able to talk to students openly and without judgment about the dangers of vaping and other at-risk behaviors. The more often you do it, the more comfortable it will be. Mr. Lindsay, whose own son attends LHS, said he has these conversations and checks in on him frequently. “I do it because I love him,” he said. 
Check: We need parents to be vigilant at home. If these substances are in our schools, they are certainly in homes as well. We are limited in what we can do to keep these substances out of our schools. If parents use vapes, they must know where they are in the home and ensure they are not accessible to children.
Speak Up: We need parents to encourage their students to speak up when asked direct questions about what they’ve seen or heard in school. Withholding information, like in the Zemmer incident, can have very serious consequences, both for a student in distress and for the student who doesn’t want to talk. 
Understand: We need parents to understand that working in schools is often very difficult work. Our building leaders want nothing more than to be able to focus their energy on what is most important: Teaching and learning. Policing our schools for substances is not where their focus should be. 

The solution starts with us; all of us.

“At this point, it’s a plea for help,” Mr. Wandrie said. “If we work together, we can begin to take significant steps to ensure our schools are safe and secure. For us to achieve it, it must be a comprehensive, community-centered approach.”

For more information on teens and vaping, visit CDV.gov.

Bolt Blog

One thought on “‘A Plea for Help’: Freeing our Schools of Substances

  1. It breaks my heart to know you all have these issues to deal with. Thank you, for every single persons efforts, just isnt enough to say.

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