Senior Jace Schow recalled feeling nervous when he went to the restroom at La Grande High School.
“Last year, you’d go into the boys bathroom in between passing periods and there’d be like, 15 people in there,” he said. “You couldn’t even use the bathroom. You’re always worried like, am I gonna get caught in here with them, even though I’m not doing anything?”
The situation was similar in the girls bathroom. Karly Burgess remembers the thick cloud of vapor that would form over a huddle of students in the restroom.
Joseph Waite, the La Grande School District’s facilities manager, said staff heard about an uptick in e-cigarette use after schools began reopening from the COVID-19 closures and wanted to take action. After doing some research, the district settled on the HALO Smart Sensor as a possible solution.
Resembling a large smoke detector, the HALO is designed to detect tobacco and THC vapor caused by e-cigarettes in addition to a host of other airborne chemicals. Waite said the district installed them in several bathrooms across the small Eastern Oregon town’s high school and middle school.
“We’re hoping to now have some form of surveillance, some form of monitoring (that) doesn’t impede the privacy of our students,” he said.
School administrators are already reporting some early success in deterring vaping on campus, although some students are skeptical it will stop the practice completely.
The sensor isn’t just being marketed as an anti-vape tool, but a multi-purpose health and security device that can detect sounds and airborne chemicals. And if the makers of HALO have their way, these sensors will become familiar sights in every school, and every classroom, in the country.
HALO was developed by IPVideo Corp., a New York-based security technology company.
Rick Cadiz, IPVideo’s vice president of sales and marketing, said the company started developing the sensor with the goal of addressing security issues rather than student health. Up to that point, IPVideo was known for selling security cameras.
“Folks in my company wanted to come up with some way that you could secure privacy areas,” he said. “Basically, like camera-less cameras … It would use different sensors, to identify issues in bathrooms, locker rooms, hospital rooms, without impeding on someone’s personal privacy.”
By the time IPVideo put the sensor to market, the company had designed a product that could detect sounds and airborne chemicals without a video lens. And they had identified a new source of customers: schools looking to address a growing youth vaping epidemic.
The HALO Smart Sensor is actually a package of more than a dozen sensors that IPVideo says can not only detect the vapor from a vape pen but also loud noises like gunshots and yelling.
While many schools tend to put the sensors in bathrooms, Cadiz said the devices don’t record anything, but instead monitor decibel level. If the noise level gets too loud or certain words are mentioned, such as “emergency,” the sensor sends an alert to school staff.
HALO sensors are now in more than 1,000 schools and the company’s ambitions aren’t stopping there.
La Grande isn’t the only school to take the plunge in Oregon. The Gresham-Barlow School District installed the HALO sensors at the start of the school year using federal COVID-19 relief.
“Our goal is to help the vaping thing go away,” Cadiz said. “It’s been so disruptive to schools and also just the health concerns for kids. So if we can help solve that, that’s great. But our ultimate goal is to get it into every classroom.”
An epidemic within a pandemic
La Grande assistant principal Eric Freeman said student vaping became more prevalent during the pandemic.
“Over the last couple years, kind of weathering the storm, the pandemics, we saw a significant increase in the amount of students accessing and using tobacco,” he said. “And many times that form was in a vape pen.”
La Grande is not alone.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released survey results showing about 1 in 10 middle and high school students reported vaping in the past 30 days. Of the students who vaped, more than a quarter stated they vaped on a daily basis.
Despite a rise in vaping, tobacco use among teens is still lower than it has been at some points in the past. According to a study from the American Journal of Public Health, regular cigarette use by 12th graders fluctuated between 30% to 40% in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s before nose diving in the 21st century.
Vaping data is showing a downward trend as well. While about 10% of students reported being regular vapers in 2022, that number was above 25% as recently as 2019.
E-cigarettes have less adverse health outcomes than traditional cigarettes, but they can still cause heart and lung disease, according to medical experts.
Freeman said the HALO sensor has already acted as a deterrent in La Grande since students learned of its presence, and the school hasn’t dealt with too many situations since its installation in October.
When students are caught vaping, Freeman said the process isn’t entirely punitive.
The student will be required to attend in-school suspension, but also spend that time undertaking a lesson warning about the dangers of vaping. If they’re caught repeatedly, Freeman said the district plans to work with Union County’s health authority to connect the student with mental health and addiction resources.
“The reason for installing the vape sensors wasn’t to necessarily say that we’re going to eliminate vaping in the schools,” he said. “But more or less, we wanted bathrooms to not be a place where students were congregating to do that.”
What students think
For many students, the beginning of the 2022-23 school year offered a bevy of possibilities.
It was the first start of the school year since 2019 that didn’t include online classes, social distancing requirements or mask mandates. Some La Grande students had never known what it was like to attend high school without pandemic rules in place for some portion of the year.
Schow, the senior, said he felt like La Grande had more school spirit this year. He was wearing a turtleneck and bell bottoms as a part of a homecoming week theme day.
As for the new vape sensors, Alexas Price was relieved but also a little disappointed.
“I was just surprised that they actually put vaping sensors in the bathroom,” she said. “I mean, it’s an amazing change. But it’s just kind of sad. That we had to go to the vaping sensor.”
Opinions were mixed on whether students tended to pick up vaping habits over the pandemic or not, but all of the students who spoke to OPB knew someone who vaped.
They were also unanimous in feeling like the sensors were unlikely to stop vaping on campus completely. Some students would figure out a way around it while others would do it anyway despite the consequences, the high schoolers said.
While students have mixed feelings about them, La Grande’s school administration is still bullish. If the sensors work as intended, facilities manager Waite said the district could consider installing more.