Last spring, students at Hinsdale Central High School discovered six vaping detectors in bathrooms and locker rooms around campus. About 20 miles south-west of Chicago, Hinsdale Central has been battling on-campus vaping for years: Administrators tried making students take online courses if they were caught with e-cigarettes; they talked to law enforcement; the Village of Hinsdale even passed an ordinance that would make it easier for officers to ticket minors caught with the devices. To no avail. And the detectors? Students simply ripped them off the walls.
E-cigarettes, which are easy to conceal and, until recently, came in a dazzling array of sweet, fruity, and dessert flavors, are hugely popular among teenagers. A recent study found that 28 percent of high schoolers and 11 percent of middle schoolers frequently vape. So schools across the country are spending thousands of dollars to outfit their campuses with vaping detectors, only to find that the devices can’t stand up to wily teens and that policing student behavior isn’t the same as permanently changing it.
Like smoke detectors, vape detectors are relatively unintrusive. They don’t even record video or audio—they just register the chemical signature of vaping aerosole, then send an email or text alert to school officials.
Some schools say they’re a useful deterrent. A district in Sparta, New Jersey, started off with two detectors and is planning to install more. Freeman School district in Washington installed detectors a few weeks ago. “They’ve been very effective and we’re glad we have them,” says Superintendent Randy Russell, who noted the detectors already helped catch one young vaper in the act.
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But at Hinsdale, even before the teens subjected them to blunt force trauma, the devices hadn’t lived up to expectations. “By the time we get there the kids are gone,” says Kimm Dever, an administrator at Hinsdale Central. Dever says the devices also went off randomly, and administrators couldn’t tell which kids were vaping and which just happened to be in the bathroom when the devices alerted.
Revere Schools in Bath, Ohio, reported similar problems. Revere spent around $15,000 to install 16 detectors in its middle and high schools at the beginning of the school year. Parents were thrilled, but administrators rarely made it to the bathroom in time to catch the vapers mid-puff. “It was like chasing ghosts,” says Jennifer Reece, a spokesperson for the school district. In theory, school officials could consult footage from hallway cameras to triangulate which students were in the bathroom when the detectors went off. “That also takes up time, and we don’t always have that type of time” Reece says.
Revere bought detectors with grant money from the state Attorney General’s Office. Now, Reece often gets questions from other school districts about the devices. “If they don’t have grant money I don’t know if it’s worth [the cost],” she says.
If vaping has become the cool thing to do among students, then buying vape detectors is the big trend for school districts. Derek Peterson, the CEO of Soter Technologies, which makes the “Flysense” detector that Revere installed, says the company is fielding about 700 orders a month. “We have more schools coming to us than we know what to do with,” he says. IPVideo, which makes a number of cameras and other gadgets for schools, sells a “Halo” detector that also claims to distinguish between THC and nicotine vapor. The detectors can integrate with school camera systems so it’s easier for administrators to figure out which students are in the bathroom and both companies’ detectors cost roughly $1,000 a piece. Flysense charges an additional annual fee.
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