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Students face felony charges, expulsions as Texas schools ramp up fight against vaping

Thomas Williams-Platt, 18, in the backyard of his aunt’s home in Georgetown on Nov. 22, 2019. Last December the then 17-year-old was arrested for bringing a vape pen to his high school.  (Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune)
Thomas Williams-Platt, 18, in the backyard of his aunt’s home in Georgetown on Nov. 22, 2019. Last December the then 17-year-old was arrested for bringing a vape pen to his high school. (Angela Piazza for The Texas Tribune)

Before entering the halls of Channing School high atop the Texas Panhandle last year, students were required to roll up their shirt sleeves to show they weren’t sneaking in e-cigarettes.

In North Texas’ Coppell Independent School District, “vape-detecting technology” — sensors akin to smoke alarms — are tucked in secret locations on campuses. They automatically ping administrators when suspicious chemicals wafting in the air indicate students might be vaping.

In other Texas school districts, students must sign out to use the bathroom during class, and drug-sniffing dogs are making the rounds.

Caught by surprise over the past two years as vaping flipped from trendy to deadly, terrified Texas school officials are aggressively attempting to quash the newest public health epidemic sweeping the nation’s youth and playing out in their bathrooms, classrooms and football stadiums.

But they’re unsure whether the best approach is to discipline students or treat them. They struggle to even spot the slender cylinders and flash drive imitators that allow students to take drags in plain sight.

And most alarmingly, they are often unable to say conclusively whether vape pens are loaded with nicotine or harder drugs, a distinction which could mean the difference between minor discipline or a felony charge that follows a student for the rest of their life.

With little guidance from the law or the state, superintendents, principals and teachers are improvising solutions that range from strange to draconian as reports of lung injuries and deaths pile up.

Vaping nicotine alone is prohibited for students under age 21, and an increasing number are being suspended or removed from regular classes and sent to alternative schools designed for students with disciplinary problems.

A smaller — but rapidly growing — number of students are being expelled when suspected of vaping THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana and a felony-level controlled substance under state law. THC oils or waxes used in vape pens are almost always more potent than the marijuana plant. Police are called and students arrested in cases where officials simply suspect a vape pen contains illegal drugs.

As vaping continues to outpace traditional smoking among the nation’s youth, students who a few years ago may have been charged with at most a misdemeanor for smoking a joint are now facing felony charges for having a vape pen in their backpacks.

Thomas Williams-Platt, a student in Georgetown ISD just north of Austin, bore the full brunt of the newfound vigilance engulfing teen vaping. One night last December, he bought a vape pen from a classmate that he says he thought contained CBD oil, a non-psychoactive substance he thought would help him relax. Another student reported it to Richarte High School’s assistant principal, who pulled Williams-Platt out of forensics class the next morning before calling Georgetown police.

The officer ran the liquid in Williams-Platt’s vape pen through an on-site drug test. “He shook it and it was purple and he said, ‘There’s THC in it,’ put me in handcuffs and took me to jail,” Williams-Platt said.

Because he was 17, he was considered an adult in the Texas criminal justice system. For hours, he sat alone in a cell at the Williamson County Jail, he says, listening to the screams of other arrestees suffering from drug withdrawals. He spent the next two months away from his friends in a county-run disciplinary school, one of 30 Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Programs across the state, created to educate students who commit crimes so serious they must be removed from their home schools.

He’s not alone. Last school year, the number of times schools punished students for tobacco and felony-level controlled substance offenses both more than doubled compared to the previous year, according to Texas Education Agency data. Although the statistics capture other drug and smoking offenses as well, school administrators and state employees agree that the spike is due to vaping.

This year, at least a few districts are pivoting from scare tactics and expulsions to education campaigns and rehabilitation after realizing how many of their students have faced harsh discipline for vaping violations.

In El Paso ISD, Superintendent Juan Cabrera grew alarmed when he learned that his staff was expelling many more students for vaping than ever before. He realized that students weren’t aware how much more severe the consequences could be if they got caught with THC in a vape pen.

“This is an issue of lack of clarity from the [Legislature] and the policy rule makers on this very new drug ... It’s a new issue,” he said.

Teens like Williams-Platt, who found himself facing felony charges, could be locked away for years and branded with a label that would make it harder for them to go to college, get a job and secure housing for the rest of their lives. Though it’s unclear how often the felony arrests turn into convictions, students could still be traumatized from the experience of being arrested and expelled to a disciplinary school.

“It made me have … another layer on me, like another thing of armor,” said Williams-Platt of his arrest and expulsion, wringing his hands at his aunt’s dining room table in Georgetown. “I was alone, and everything that happened to me, I just had to go through it alone.”

Vaping madness

Pitched as a way to help people quit tobacco, e-cigarettes heat nicotine-laced liquid, turning it into a vapor which delivers high concentrations of the drug straight into smokers’ lungs. But many of the actual consumers are young people, never before addicted to cigarettes, drawn to the colorful variety of flavors companies marketed. For more than a decade, federal officials have warned that e-cigarettes may be toxic and expressed concern that companies were targeting youth.

Juul Labs quickly cornered the teen market after popping up in 2015 with a sleek, inconspicuous vaping device and a long list of fruity flavors. More than 5 million teens across the country use e-cigarettes and the majority report that Juul is their brand of choice, according to a recent federal report.

With less public attention, vaping devices are also being used as a new alternative to smoking pot. Marijuana companies in states where the drug is legal have said vaping products now account for at least 30% of their business, according to The New York Times.

Officials’ health concerns were largely ignored until recently when vaping sparked a full-blown panic. This summer, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began investigating severe lung injuries and deaths in otherwise healthy people tied to vaping. More than 2,400 people have been hospitalized and at least 52 people have died as of last week. Texas accounted for more than 200 injuries and one death.

In Texas, almost all of the cases are tied to vaping THC oil and have involved youth.

“At this point, we’re really encouraging people, particularly young people, not to vape at all until we have a better handle on exactly what the cause is,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Committees of state lawmakers are looking into the public health effects and criminal consequences of vaping ahead of the next legislative session, considering how to deter people who are selling to teens. But guidance from the state, including the education agency, on how schools might best respond to teen vaping has been minimal. The gap in official communication prompted the Texas Association of School Boards to release its own guidelines for educators just this month. Meanwhile, smoke and vape stores are allowed to set up shop right across the street from schools like Williams-Platt’s.

“I'm very concerned that the approach we take with our young people and our school districts needs to be less nebulous and much more specific and much more aggressive,” state Sen. Beverly Powell, D-Burleson, said at a committee hearing earlier this month.

Legislators won’t be able to pass any new vaping laws until their 2021 session. But school officials are dealing with the issue now.

Hard line or helping hand?

Vaping swept San Antonio’s Northside ISD campuses so fast last year, district officials struggled to respond. In 2018-19 the district, with more than 100,000 students, handled 152 disciplinary incidents related to felony-level controlled substances, six times the number from the previous year. Most cases involved students vaping THC and many were expelled, said Superintendent Brian Woods.

This year, Northside started a campaign to educate students about the dangers and criminal consequences of vaping. They’re also assessing individual cases to determine whether students who smoke THC should be expelled or face more lenient disciplinary action. It’s too early to tell what effect the changes have had on discipline.

“We have come across some students who seem genuinely ignorant of the seriousness of the consequences. And there are some that weren’t ignorant and chose to do it anyway. It seems to me those should be handled differently,” Woods said.

Neighboring North East ISD officials ran in the other direction, moving this year to expel students with vape pens that test positive for THC, citing a state education law they say requires them to do so. School principals handled 598 disciplinary incidents related to vaping last school year, up from 395 the previous school year, according to district data.

“The letter of the law is very clear. We do not think that there is room for interpretation on that,” said Aubrey Chancellor, spokesperson for North East ISD.

Education lawyers say that isn’t true. State law does require schools to expel students found using, possessing or selling a felony-level controlled substance like THC. But in a confusing contradiction, the law also says a student shouldn’t be expelled before the district considers mitigating factors, including whether the student intended to break the rules, has a disciplinary history, or is homeless.

Woods said he had many debates with district lawyers over how to interpret those two sections of the law. “The law if read in total is a little ambiguous on when mandatory is truly mandatory. That’s the hard question to answer,” he said.

School officials absolutely have discretion over expelling students, especially for first time offenders, said Christina Beeler, a lawyer who represents Harris County students in school disciplinary proceedings. She believes schools should instead provide substance abuse treatment for students caught vaping THC.

“When kids are engaging in substance abuse, it is because of something,” she said. “Sending a kid into [a disciplinary school] doesn’t teach them, ‘I shouldn’t abuse substances.’ It teaches them, ‘I shouldn’t get caught.’”

A 16-year-old student at La Porte High School, on the outskirts of suburban Houston, who asked that her name be withheld because she is a minor, recalled being sent to the district’s disciplinary school for two weeks last school year when she was found skipping class with three students, including one suspected of vaping THC. “In my school, a lot of kids don’t like being sober,” she said. “They have to have a buzz. They have to be high.”

In the disciplinary school, which was “really, really horrible,” she completed a lot of coursework on her own online and had to walk through the halls supervised in a line with other students.

She said she was let out weeks early after her mom protested, submitting seven drug tests to the school that had come back with no trace of THC or any other drug. But when she got back to school, she felt “kind of like a suspect,” being watched in the halls and warned that she couldn’t afford to get into any more trouble.

“I feel like they’re focusing more on bad stuff, like drugs and e-cigs, rather than focusing on our education,” she said.

La Porte ISD officials do not have the capacity to test the substance in vape pens on site and instead look at other evidence to determine whether a student has been vaping THC, said La Porte High School’s principal, Carlin Grammer. They rely on the school nurse to assess whether a student is high or just sick and encourage parents to pay to get their children drug tested if there’s any doubt about whether they’re under the influence, he said.

“Everything’s looked at carefully to make sure we’re following the law, following the policy and doing what’s right for the kid,” Grammer said.

Last year, Richardson ISD north of Dallas expelled students arrested for allegedly vaping THC to the county-run disciplinary school aligned with the juvenile justice system, miles south of the district. This year, they are instead expelling students to the district-run disciplinary school, within Richardson ISD boundaries, and giving them the opportunity to shorten their stay if they participate in a four-hour drug class.

“As an educator you never want to send students away from the district,” said Matthew Gibbins, Richardson ISD’s chief executive of student services. “You want to keep them here in a district that you know.”

Felony trap

After sitting in jail for half of a day last December, Williams-Platt found himself in a meeting with school administrators discussing his fate.

Law enforcement never conclusively determined if his vape pen contained THC, though the initial on-site test indicated it did, according to his lawyer. His criminal case instead was eventually dismissed through a negotiation with prosecutors that involved repeated drug tests, a substance abuse class and community service.

Still, before the criminal justice system disposed of his case, his school took action. He’d been arrested on suspicion of a third-degree felony, possessing THC oil on school grounds. As in many school districts, that felony drug offense meant expulsion.

For Williams-Platt, school officials decided on the county’s juvenile justice disciplinary school, the harshest form of education discipline. A couple days later, he started at the Williamson County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program, where he would spend the next two months, he said. Georgetown ISD and the Georgetown Police Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Williams-Platt said his classes mostly meant sitting in front of a computer. Students weren’t allowed to have phones, wear certain colors or leave their seats during class. They walked in a straight line with their hands behind their back.

“It was like a super strict kindergarten,” he said.

His expulsion ended the day before his 18th birthday.

Special disciplinary schools run by county juvenile departments instead of school districts were launched in 1996 to ensure “disruptive and dangerous students” expelled from public schools still received educational services, according to a state report.

The number of students sent to these schools is relatively small compared to the entire Texas public school population: about 3,200 student admissions last school year compared to 5.4 million students statewide, according to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department, which oversees them. About half of those admissions came from school expulsions for serious offenses, like weapon or felony drug crimes.

The schools' mission is to focus on academics, discipline and behavior management for students who need to be removed from schools for classroom safety. The number of times students were sent to such schools had been trending down until last school year when the numbers spiked.

Officials point to one reason: the schools have become a dumping ground for kids caught vaping.

“The numbers are just ridiculous,” said Marie Welsch, an education specialist with the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. “In January, there was a 60% increase [in attendance days] from the previous year. And February and March and April and May we had over 55% increase every single month for the rest of the school year.”

Welsch is concerned that students like Williams-Platt caught with what police suspect to be THC are being unnecessarily entangled in the criminal justice system. Though the criminal case may not stick, students busted for vaping are in the same secure school environment with what Welsch called “high-needs kids.”

“They’ve pretty much not been in trouble before,” she said. “Yes, we need a really important consequence for these kids because it's a felony level controlled substance, but we also need education and support for them.”

And the increase of vaping cases threatens to strain the system intended to help other students expelled for serious offenses. When schools send kids to these campuses on felony drug and violent offenses, the state’s juvenile justice department picks up part of the tab.

But, unlike public schools which are guaranteed a certain level of funding per student, the juvenile justice department has a preset budget from the state legislature. Because of the rapid increase in vaping cases, the agency’s budget allows only $60 a day per student, down from $86 before the vaping surge, Welsch said.

“That’s a third less money,” she said, exasperated. “And it costs more because you’ve not only got to have a teacher, you've got to have a behavior specialist… these kids deserve the support it takes to not have to stay in trouble.”

Though Williams-Platt’s criminal case was dismissed, his mother said she had to fundraise money to post bail and pay for a lawyer, court fees and the required drug testing.

District attorneys have wide discretion in determining which cases they will pursue, including suspected THC offenses. It’s not unusual for a prosecutor to dismiss or not accept the case in the first place, especially after a June law legalized low concentrations of THC and state labs can't yet test the potency in samples. In Williamson County, where Williams-Platt was arrested, the district attorney said THC vaping charges are taken on a case-by-case basis. Other counties are holding on to cases while the state figures out a new testing method for THC, leaving many students' potential criminal charges in limbo for months.

Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, a Democrat, said first instances of low-level THC offenses are often not accepted for prosecution. “You can’t criminalize your way out of public health, that’s the big picture,” he said.

But the district attorney’s decisions don’t keep students out of the juvenile justice school system. And in some cases, students do become felons. Williams-Platt’s lawyer, Chris Tolbert said he has seen young people convicted for vaping.

“That was a good resolution in Thomas’ case,” he said. “It doesn’t work out like that for everybody.”

Disclosure: Juul has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.