Long before mysterious lung injuries sent shock waves across the country about the potential harms of vaping, Saugus school officials were talking about how the growing trend of adolescent e-cigarette use could hit close to home.
Superintendent David DeRuosi recalls the school committee talking about the impact the new technology could pose on students when he started the job four years ago.
It’s how the district was able to get out ahead of the issue, working to bring in a curriculum this year to teach kids about the dangers connected to the habit, just as reports of vaping-associated illnesses — and deaths — have skyrocketed across the country.
“We’re trying to tackle this like we do so many other things in education,” DeRuosi told Boston.com Thursday. “We definitely have handbooks, we have policies, and we have consequences, but we are trying to educate in the meantime.”
On Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control announced 1,080 lung injury cases associated with vaping products were reported as of Oct. 1 in 48 states and one United States territory. Eighteen deaths have been confirmed across 15 states, the CDC said on its website.
While the agency has not found a specific chemical or product linked to the outbreak, most patients reported using products containing Tetrahydrocannabinol or THC — an active chemical in marijuana.
“The latest national and regional findings suggest products containing THC play a role in the outbreak,” CDC said.
Investigators have been looking into illicit THC vaping products as a possible cause.
Last week, Gov. Charlie Baker and state health officials declared a public health emergency and instituted a four-month ban on all retail and online sales of nicotine, flavored, non-flavored, and marijuana vaping products.
Saugus schools are looking to teach kids as early as fourth and fifth grade about health risks associated with vape products, according to DeRuosi.
It’s one piece of a community-driven strategy to make sure parents, teachers, and kids all understand the ins and outs of e-cigarettes, he said.
“We knew this was coming,” School Committee Chairwoman Jeanette Meredith said, referring to the national outbreak at the group’s Sept. 26 meeting. “When you have unregulated things, the health effects aren’t even known yet, and now they’re here and it’s worse than what we thought, I think.
“I think it’s going to get even worse and my biggest fear is that we need to educate the kids and the parents because a lot of parents have no idea,” she added.
In Massachusetts, 41 percent of “all youth” in 2017 reported trying e-cigarettes and roughly 20 percent said they use the products regularly, according to the state Department of Public Health.
The U.S. Surgeon General declared teenage vaping an epidemic last year.
DeRuosi said Saugus school officials are looking to tie the effects of vaping into their health and wellness curriculum taught in elementary school through the ninth and tenth grades, which receive classroom visits from health counselors.
The goal is to give students the knowledge and the skill set necessary to just say no, he said.
Still, even for those students who are caught vaping in school, educators have opted to take a less traditional approach.
Though they once would have received a standard, two-day suspension, those students are now sent to a program the district partnered on with Beverly schools, known as PASS, or Positive Alternatives to School Suspension, DeRuosi said.
Students bring their schoolwork with them for the two-day period, but they also have access to counseling services, he said.
“It is an addiction,” he noted.
The partnership started with a pilot program in April and has so far been well received, he said.
DeRuosi knows that even with the district’s proactive approach on the issue, it doesn’t mean that students aren’t vaping anymore, he said.
School staff monitors bathrooms at certain times of the day. The district also brought on hall monitors to give teachers another set of eyes and ears, he said.
“But again, it’s the message through the parents and through the student base that’s going to make a difference,” he said.