Last week, the rumor mill churned out a worrisome story–that school administrators had ‘bolted shut’ all but one bathroom on each floor of the high school, in an effort to put a stop to student vaping. Like many rumors, the story  had been somewhat exaggerated–but it was built around a kernel of truth. Principal Robert O’Donnell was eager to get out the facts.

“There were two boys bathrooms and two girls bathrooms that were locked–a set of boys and girls bathrooms on the second floor and a set on the third floor, in the northeast corner of the building. There were rumors that there were not enough bathrooms for kids–there are still at least two other full sets on each of those floors that kids have been able to use.”

The reason they were closed? Vandalism and vaping, says O’Donnell.

“In the second floor boys bathroom, we had two incidents of vandalism–one earlier in the year, someone ripped a door off of one of the bathroom stalls. Then a couple weeks ago, the students ripped out the paper towel dispenser, ripped that out of the wall,” he explains.

“I had already been considering closing these bathrooms just to restrict where kids had been vaping. We’ve heard those were ‘hot spots’ where kids vape, so that strategy was already under consideration. So when that paper towel got ripped right off the wall, I made a decision to close that down to prevent vaping and to have it repaired, and also the adjacent girls bathroom, and the boys and girls bathrooms on third floor right above it,” O’Donnell adds.

Those bathrooms have now been reopened, after repairs were completed. And, he acknowledges, it was a strategy worth trying–something many schools have done to take aim at the growing rates of teen vaping. O’Donnell has spoken with principals at other schools where closing bathrooms has had some success in curbing the trend, at least during school hours.

It’s a trend that has school officials concerned, and one that impacts everyone.

“I’m going to communicate with the students why and reiterate our expectations. These are sanitary health facilities for the entire community, and when students destroy or vandalize them it has an impact on everybody. None of us wants to be going into bathrooms when kids are vaping,” he says, adding. “I want all of our bathrooms open. I want them clean, I want them free of illicit activity. This was an approach that may have worked and sent message–you can’t be vandalizing public bathrooms.”

An act like what happened is certainly not the norm for Wilton. “Most of our kids are respectful and respectable. The vast majority do exactly what you hope and expect of them. They should be able to go, and use a bathroom, it should be clean and orderly and there should be paper towels there. We’re all trying to remain healthy and focus on wellness. It’s unfortunate,” O’Donnell says.

One other tactic that has been considered is to install vapor detectors, something that reportedly has been done at Ridgefield High School–but O’Donnell isn’t sure that’s something that will work.

“In my discussions with schools and principals who have done it, they’re meeting with some limited success. I think it’s a consideration, I don’t know if that’s going to be part of the solution or not.”

The frustration at stemming the habit is clear. It’s a growing problem in schools around the country, and Wilton students are not immune. According to school officials, a recent local survey reported that nearly 25% of 9th and 10th graders used an E-cigarette or JUUL in the last month, something they say is “substantially elevated compared to national norms.”

“Vaping is a national epidemic. Use by teenagers has increased and is significant. We’re trying to be a deterrent, trying to be a supervisory presence–the campus supervisors circulate around and monitor the bathrooms, the administrative team is doing it as well, but it is a problem because it is more pervasive than people realize.”

A generation or two ago, when teen cigarette use was high, it was easier to detect because the scent of cigarette smoke in school bathrooms was a distinct giveaway. With vaping, it’s easier to hide. “The vapor is less detectable and more clandestine–kids are very clandestine with their Juuls, the little cartridges,” O’Donnell explains.

As a school, O’Donnell says the main tactic to combat the rise in vaping is education.

“It’s something we address with our curriculum, our health classes, something that our coaches address, it’s something we’re regularly trying to communicate to kids. It’s not yet fully known what the impact is on students’ health and wellness, but it can’t be good.”

To that end, there is an activity period scheduled for Wednesday, during which the entire freshman class is scheduled to take part in an interactive presentation and discussion to educate about the dangers of vaping. It will be presented by staff from Liberation Programs, an addiction treatment program in Norwalk.

“We’ve got an hour carved out, where we can educate through a different avenue, our youngest kids who are very impressionable–it starts even before they get to high school,” O’Donnell says.

While the school is taking a multi-modal approach–in the classroom and advisory program, through athletics and coaches, and special programs–O’Donnell hopes that parents will get even more engaged.

“Parents–become as informed as one possibly can be. We have information posted on our website about vaping. Have conversations about the dangers, be aware of what students may or may not be accessing. This Juul product is readily available, the kids sell them to each other–that’s a problem too. It’s a question of being aware,” he says. “We all need to realize this is the next big thing that kids are doing, and they’re doing it increasingly younger.”

He notes that the school frequently partners with the Wilton Youth Council, which also has resources for parents. [See a list of online resources we link to at the bottom of this article.]

When the school does catch a student vaping, there are consequences–a tiered disciplinary response of four morning detentions for the first offense, and an in-school suspension for the second time–but punishment is just one prong, says O’Donnell.

“We do have an outreach, drug safety counselor, that when a student is caught we refer them to that person as well. Here’s somebody that the schools are paying for, that is free of charge, that is a good resource. You can be open about your use, how often, how it might be affecting you–the counselor does not report back to the administration, it’s confidential. Speak to this woman, let her help you, let her help you help yourself.”

At the end of the day, O’Donnell says, they are trying to get a handle on the vaping problem. “It’s trying to get kids to understand it’s just unhealthy. A lot of well-meaning adults are trying to educate and prevent this.”

Resources for parents:

Wilton High School Website:  Parent Resource page

Wilton High School Google Drive Resource List

Wilton Youth Council Resource page