After returning to school following the COVID-19 pandemic, students across El Paso have been caught vaping THC — the psychoactive component in marijuana that causes a “high” — in bathrooms, hallways and even in class.
“Some of these kids are just being blatant about using vapes,” Socorro Independent School District Police Chief George Johnson said.
This led to a dramatic rise in minors, some as young as 10, facing felony charges for possession of THC concentrates.
In the third of a four-part series on juvenile THC vaping, El Paso Matters explores how school districts are dealing with a growing number of disciplinary cases while figuring out how to stop students from vaping.
Many have installed special sensors that detect vaping and notify school staff; had drug-sniffing police dogs make searches; given presentations on the consequences of vaping THC, and implemented new measures on how to deal with those who have been caught.
Any student who possesses, uses, or is under the influence of marijuana on school property must be removed from class and placed in a disciplinary alternative education program or juvenile justice alternative education program, which often requires expulsion from their current school, according to the Texas Education Code. The code also states administrators must consider certain factors, like disability and disciplinary history, before sending a student to alternative school.
In June, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill meant to give schools more control over which students get sent to these schools, which is typically meant for students who commit violent crimes and pose a danger to their peers. House Bill 114 goes into effect in September.
With this vague guidance from the state, policies and disciplinary methods can sometimes vary from school to school within the same district.
Some have begun taking a restorative approach that aims to educate students on vaping THC while allowing the legal system to dole out punishment.
Others have opted to use more punitive measures placing students in an alternative school where they are not allowed to see their regular classmates or take part in extracurricular activities – something experts say may do more harm than good in the long run.
“If we remove students from the classroom for a suspension or expulsion, it has a negative impact on their education, a negative impact on likelihood young people will graduate or how likely they are to attend college,” said Jeffrey Willett, the national vice president of integrated strategies for the American Heart Association during a presentation on vaping with El Paso school administrators in June.
The presentation was hosted by the Paso del Norte Health Foundation as part of its Smoke-Free Paso Del Norte campaign.
The rise of THC vaping cases caused at least one local alternative school to become overwhelmed with students during the 2022-23 school year.
“I’ve worked at Cesar Chavez (Academy) and oh my god, there’s a lot of kids,” said El Paso Police Officer Andres Rodriguez during a presentation with the El Paso Advocates for Prevention Coalition in July.
“They’ll all be coming down to Cesar Chavez because they get caught with a vape,” Rodriguez said about the alternative school in the Ysleta Independent School District.
“Very few are coming in here for fighting or any of the other issues that they may be having. So the vast majority of our students here are for THC versus before where you had a decent mix of various reasons why they might be coming in,” Ivan Martinez, a social studies teacher at Keys Academy, added.
Keys Academy, an alternative school with SISD, has been struggling with an overflow of students, with classes reaching capacity multiple times during the school year, emails obtained by El Paso Matters show.
“We are currently at capacity with KEYS placements, and we are asking that middle schools keep their current placements at eight students so we can accommodate all pending schools’ recommendations,” stated an email sent to SISD administrators in February from KEYS Academy Assistant Principal Daniel Delgado.
Records show that both EPISD and SISD saw an increase in alternative education placements during this last school year. EPISD’s alternative school placements rose about 14% to about 1,700 during the 2022-23 school year over the previous year. SISD’s alternative school placements rose by 15% to 820 during that same time frame. These numbers include placement for all disciplinary offenses, not just those related to THC.
Martinez said he has also noticed that placing students at Keys Academy hasn’t been very successful in getting kids to stop vaping THC.
“The majority of the sentiment I hear from the students is that they want to be smarter about trying to hide it or just not bringing it to school, but probably still use at home,” Martinez said. “Now there are a few that do say it was a mistake and are just going to stay away from that and stay clean, but it’s not the majority.”
Though school districts are required to track disciplinary violations and report them to the Texas Education Agency, administrators say it is still difficult to get a full scope of just how many students are getting caught vaping THC.
School districts can report a disciplinary incident involving THC vaping devices as either a standard controlled substance violation, which can include regular marijuana, or as a felony controlled substance violation that can include other controlled substances like cocaine or meth.
Still, disciplinary reports show that the number of drug-related violations has been on the rise since students returned to school from the pandemic, and administrators say it is mostly related to THC.
During the 2022-23 school year, the El Paso Independent School District reported 655 combined drug violations, SISD reported 568 and YISD reported 584. During the previous school year, EPISD reported roughly 400 of these cases, SISD reported 340 and the Ysleta Independent School District reported 490.
Records obtained by El Paso Matters show that about 880 – or 60% – THC vaping-related arrests that were reported to the El Paso Juvenile Probation Department between April 2019 and April 2023 were conducted by school resource officers.
However, the number that took place in schools is likely higher since local law enforcement will assist school districts without their own police force. About 37% of these arrests were conducted by SISD police and over 21% were done by EPISD Police.
YISD, the third largest district in the county, does not have its own police force and works with the El Paso Police Department in cases when students are caught vaping THC. The department made roughly 26% of these arrests in the same period, including those that took place outside of YISD.
Still, this does not include arrests for students who were 17 or older and were charged as adults.
Johnson noted that one of the reasons so many charges come from SISD is because of its heightened police presence on its campuses.
“I believe the issue is nationwide, I don’t think it’s isolated just to us, but here in El Paso we have the largest school-based law enforcement agency locally,” Johnson said.
Though EPISD and SISD have a similar population, with 50,000 and 48,000 students respectively, Johnson said SISD had more officers on staff and fewer schools for them to patrol. According to EPISD’s website, the district has 42 police officers who are tasked with monitoring the district’s roughly 80 schools. Johnson said SISD has about 70 officers on staff with only 53 schools to patrol.
A restorative approach
While expulsion to alternative schools is one of the most common consequences for students caught vaping THC in Texas, research shows that it can have negative long-term consequences.
One statewide study found that students involved in a school disciplinary system were more likely to be held back a grade and drop out of school.
Another study also found that suspending and expelling students have lower college enrollment rates, lower graduation rates and are more likely to get involved in the criminal justice system in the future.
A number of health organizations, including the American Heart Association, are now advocating for schools to take a restorative approach that provides alternatives to exclusionary discipline by keeping kids in class and attempting to address the root cause of students vaping.
Willett, of the AHA, said this may include treating mental health issues.
A study conducted by the AHA in 2020 found that students who vape THC, nicotine or both reported significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts than their peers who don’t vape.
“We don’t know the relationship in terms of causality, but we do know that many young people are using vaping products, both nicotine and cannabis, because they likely falsely perceive that it provides relief for anxiety and depression,” Willett said.
Disciplinary measures that do not address some of those underlying issues may exacerbate them, Willett added.
In response to a growing number of students vaping, some schools began changing the way they deal with disciplinary cases.
During the 2022-23 school year, YISD implemented a new program for students who were caught vaping, either nicotine or THC, for the first time meant to keep them out of an alternative school setting.
“We started to see this uptick last year, so we went with the proactive approach and we established a vaping first offender program,” Department of Student Services Director Diana Yadira Mooy said. “The legal side still takes its course if it’s THC, but here in our district, our approach is more to emphasize the importance of educating the students on the potential health risk and consequences of THC.”
YISD is also the only of El Paso’s three largest school districts to see a decline in alternative school placements. During the 2021-22 school year, the district had 706 students sent to alternative school. That number dropped to 645 in the 2022-23 school year.
As part of the program, students are required to complete a curriculum where they learn about the health consequences of vaping and marijuana use. Mooy said they have students talk to a counselor who checks for underlying issues such as addiction, anxiety or depression, and help refer them to treatment.
The students’ parents are also required to attend a meeting where they learn about the health and legal consequences of vaping THC.
“Part of the parent meeting is not only to inform them of the heavy consequences, but also addressing the root cause and providing that support to hopefully reduce those incidents in the future,” Mooy said.
Mooy said that over 550 students who were caught vaping either THC or nicotine had taken part in the program during its first year.
One school in SISD, Pebble Hills High School, also implemented a vaping first-offender program with some questionable methods.
During the nine-week program, students caught vaping are allowed to attend their regular classes and required to wear a uniform – something their peers don’t have to do.
The goal of the program is to reduce the number of students attending alternative schools and continue with their regular instruction, said Andrea Cruz, assistant superintendent of administrative services at SISD.
“The program allows students to continue with their classes and minimizes the learning and credit loss,” Cruz said.
Cruz said the program is currently under review, and it is likely other schools in the district may implement something similar.