LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The administrator in charge of overall safety at the sprawling Pulaski County Special School District says data he is seeing in and around Little Rock matches national numbers.
Dr. Sherman Winston says about one-in-five high school students have tried vaping, with a disturbing one-in-20 teens in middle school trying the nicotine delivery products.
"We've had at least 20 cases of smoking-related incidences with most of it pertaining to vaping," said Winston, a 20-year veteran educator with the 1,200-student district. "Since the start of the year, only two were specifically dealing with tobacco. The rest of the 18 were someone vaping or having a vaping device."
These numbers are expected to be similar in other districts across the state. Our 11News Investigations team has begun the process of asking schools for the numbers of students caught vaping. The PCSSD and Whitfield had the data close at hand already.
The rapid growth of vaping is something Whitfield hasn't seen in his career, but he has identified what he calls a villain.
"The Juul cartridges are the biggie for us," he said, referring to the closed-system products made by a company controlled by tobacco giant Altria. Amid the national furor, company leaders say they do not target kids in their advertising and marketing, but Whitfield disagrees.
"Clearly in my mind, this product is being targeted toward our youth," he said, pointing to a print advertising campaign featuring young-looking models holding the devices that look like USB memory sticks with colorful "skins."
And Whitfield and others note that the young people who do get their hands on the products are very good at hiding them, allowing kids to brazenly vape in class and not have to follow the "smokin' in the bathroom" image of previous generations.
"They're making them now so that you can attach it to the string of the hoodie, bring it up and teachers in the classroom would probably never be the wiser," he said. "We have to look at how we educate our staff and faculty to what's going on so they have a consciousness of this process."
THV11 has put in Freedom of Information Act requests for vaping-related data from other Arkansas school districts. That information will be reported once it is received.