San Dieguito district to pilot vape sensors in campus restrooms

A Verkada vape censor.
(Karen Billing)

The San Dieguito Union High School District will pilot the use of vape sensors on campuses to help sniff out and snuff out increasing student use.

The board’s Nov. 18 vote on the new system of vape sensors paired with cameras was 3-2 with trustees Julie Bronstein and Katrina Young opposed. The three high school student representatives that remained in attendance at the meeting also all voted against it.

The sensors will be piloted at one middle school and one high school.

Superintendent Cheryl James-Ward said the district knows that vaping is a serious problem. On the night she was selected as the district’s new superintendent last month, she said she fielded a request from a parent asking: “What are you going to do about the vaping in the bathrooms?”

Vice President Melisse Mossy said she had a student tell her they would not use the bathroom at school because it gives them so much anxiety. President Mo Muir said a student described the restroom at school as having “a grape fog” that she couldn’t go in.

Considered just as addictive as tobacco products, young people are attracted to vaping due to the liquid flavorings of fruit, candy and mint. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) most e-cigarettes contain nicotine, which is highly addictive and can harm adolescent brain development. The California Department of Public Health has issued a warning about the risk of vaping, which has been linked to severe breathing problems, lung damage and even death. As of September 2021, the CDPH has reported 249 cases of e-cigarette or vaping associated lung injury (EVALI) and five deaths.

Mossy said according to the CDC, 20% of middle school students said they have vaped and that number doubles by the time they get to high school—she likes the idea of identifying students who are having trouble with the habit and being able to bring those numbers down.

Ward said the focus of the sensors is to provide support for students who need it and not necessarily to be punitive.

“We have a problem, we have to find a solution,” Muir said. “It is so upsetting to me to think that someone could have an addiction at that age. We have to intervene... Someone could have a full-blown addiction by the time they leave our high school district and that breaks my heart.”

According to Deputy Superintendent Mark Miller, the district’s safety committee, which includes site assistant principals, have been asking for this kind of system for the last two years to help track and identify students who are vaping and provide intervention support. The vape sensing technology has been used in neighboring Poway Unified and in Coronado Unified school districts.

For the pilot, the board agreed to purchase the $11,270 Verkada system, with sensors placed in the restrooms—site administration would receive an instant notification when the sensor is tripped. Cameras to accompany the censors would be located outside of the restrooms to monitor patterns of who was in the restroom at the time the smoke was detected.

The student board representatives agreed that something needed to be done about vaping at school but they were strongly against the proposal.

“We clearly are against vaping…but a lot of students claimed having cameras on campus is an invasion of privacy,” said Torrey Pines High student representative Peyton Parker. She and LCC representative Olivia Pacheco both said that students would likely just find another place to use on their open campuses: “It’s just moving the problem, it’s not solving the problem,” Peyton said.

Amanda Chen, Canyon Crest Academy representative, said students felt that the presence of cameras would make them feel unsafe, paranoid and create distrust on campus.

The San Dieguito Academy representative Zachary Johnson suggested more education around vaping and its negative effects—he said that could have a bigger impact than software used to catch people at school.

There are surveillance cameras on district campuses already and as Ward noted, one was recently used to help find a student who had been reported missing in Encinitas.

Despite the students’ privacy concerns about the cameras and Mossy’s attempt to find consensus by suggesting a pilot of just the censors without the cameras, Ward said there was really no reason to get the censors without the cameras as it would not be possible for staff to monitor the restrooms.

With her vote in opposition, Trustee Julie Bronstein questioned the practicality of the sensors and whether it would really solve the problem. She said she heard from students that they would be uncomfortable using the bathroom for fear that they might be wrongly identified and accused unfairly.

“In my heart, I don’t feel right not honoring and respecting what we’re hearing from our students right now. Because of our COVID year, it doesn’t feel good,” Bronstein said.