Virtually odorless and smokeless, easily concealed in a pocket or sleeve, and frequently designed to look like USB drives or other everyday items, e-cigarettes are not difficult to hide. Perhaps not coincidentally, the number of teenagers who vape has skyrocketed in recent years, bedeviling school principals and prompting fears that a new generation will grow up hooked on nicotine.
So one small Nebraska school district is trying an aggressive new approach: Forcing students in grades seven through 12 to submit to random nicotine testing if they want to take part in extracurricular activities such as speech competitions and the National Honor Society.
"Vaping and smoking in our view is reaching epidemic proportions," Fairbury Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Grizzle told the Lincoln Journal Star last week, after the school board voted to approve the measure. "It's just a way we can deter kids from potentially being addicted to nicotine."
Though teenagers and privacy-rights advocates might find it extreme, the new policy is legal thanks to a 2002 U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld an Oklahoma school district's policy of randomly drug testing students who participate in "competitive" extracurricular activities ranging from cheerleading to choir. In 1997, the Supreme Court had determined that testing high school athletes for illegal drugs was constitutional.
Fairbury Junior-Senior High School, where roughly 60 percent of the 387 students participate in after-school activities, has had a random drug-testing system for two years. Students and their parents are required to sign a consent form agreeing to the urinalysis tests, which are randomly assigned to 10 percent of the students in extracurricular activities each month, the Journal Star reported.
"We want it to be a deterrent," Grizzle told the paper. "Kids are under a whole lot of pressure to experiment with drugs or nicotine."
Only a handful of students have failed the test each year, though school officials expect those numbers to go up once nicotine is added. First-time offenders are required to complete mandatory educational seminars and are suspended from school activities for 10 days. The consequences escalate from there: After their third offense, students are disqualified from participating in extracurricular activities for a whole year.
Teens who involuntarily inhale secondhand smoke - a likely scenario if their parents are smokers - don't need to worry, officials say. Sport Safe Testing Service, the Ohio-based company that performs the tests, told the Journal Star that it sets the levels high enough on nicotine tests to ensure that it's catching only teens who are actively vaping or smoking.
According to the U.S. surgeon general, e-cigarette use among middle and high school students increased by 900 percent between 2011 and 2015, and more than 3.6 million middle schoolers and high schoolers vaped in 2018. Only about a dozen of the 100 school districts nationwide that contract with Sport Safe Testing Service tested for nicotine before vaping became so widespread, Chris Franz, one of the company's owners, told the Journal Star. But many more have recently begun expressing interest.
Administrators in Fairbury aren't the only ones hoping that the threat of random testing will make students think twice about taking a drag on an e-cigarette. In February, the Brock Independent School District in Brock, Texas, voted to add nicotine to the list of substances for which students in grades seven through 12 can be randomly tested. According to the school's handbook, the policy applies to any students who request a parking permit, as well as any students who participate in extracurricular activities.
"We are trying to give our kids an out of not doing it," Brock ISD Athletic Director Chad Massey explained at a January school board meeting, according to the Weatherford Democrat. "That's what our main goal is, to prevent any kid from doing any kind of drug or nicotine."
The Nebraska district is also looking into installing WiFi-enabled vape detectors, a new form of technology adopted by schools in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Arizona and Illinois in recent months. The sensors, which are typically placed in bathrooms and resemble smoke detectors, are designed to detect vapor from e-cigarettes by measuring changes in humidity and air content.
Because the devices can cost nearly $1,000 a piece, some school districts reportedly are installing dummies and counting on students not to figure out which are real and which are fake. By comparison, randomly testing students for nicotine will cost Fairbury Public Schools only an additional $900 a year, KOLN reported.
Elsewhere, principals have resorted to ripping down bathroom doors.
An unofficial poll conducted by the Fairbury Journal-News this month found that the majority of residents in the rural community, which is located roughly 70 miles from the state capitol in Lincoln, supported the new nicotine-testing policy. Many expressed concerns about how popular e-cigarettes have become, and noted that students seemed to be flouting a campuswide ban on smoking.
"Juuling has become a big issue in the bathrooms at school," one woman commented, referencing the popular and contentious USB-shaped e-cigarettes manufactured by Juul Labs. "Kids can't even use the bathroom anymore."
But some argued that it should be up to parents, not the school district, to police teenagers' behavior. "If we keep giving our rights away, soon we will have none left," wrote one dissenter. "I for one, would like to make my own decisions. I don't need the government to make them for me."
This article was written by Antonia Noori Farzan, a reporter for The Washington Post.
Antonia Noori Farzan is a reporter on The Washington Post's Morning Mix team. She previously worked at the Phoenix New Times.