School safety experts are warning students, families and educators against vape pens disguised as everyday school supplies after a device disguised as a highlighter went viral on social media.
"It seems that the concealability and accessibility are attracting teens to vaping," said David Vincent, chief of police for Florida's Citrus County School Board and a school safety specialist, in an email to K-12 Dive. "We have seen a dramatic shift from traditional substance use like cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and leaf marijuana to now everything being related to vape pens."
While the highlighter pen is marketed by the company HighLight Vape as "intended for sale to adults 21 years or older," its wide range of neon colors and dual ability to function as a marker make it easy to conceal in a backpack, locker or pencil pouch.
Because our jobs aren’t hard enough— Dawn Kasal Finley(she/her) ???? (@kasal_finley) August 20, 2023
These are vape pens and not highlighters ???? pic.twitter.com/mOzqEi85i3
It adds to the list of vape pens also disguised as other popular school supply or personal items. These include but are not limited to tape rolls, markers, USB drives, white out and chapstick, according to Michael DeHaven, director of security for Denison Independent School District in Texas.
"Unfortunately manufacturers of these products create devices that cater towards concealment," said Vincent. "The most recent highlighter disguised vape really reinforces to me that these things are being targeted to our kids. Most adults who can legally purchase devices and substances should not need to disguise them."
A rise in teen vaping has concerned school and district leaders in recent years.
Approximately 2.55 million U.S. middle and high school students reported e-cigarette use during a 30-day period in 2022, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That includes 14.1% of high school students and 3.3% of middle school students.
E-cigarettes are also the most commonly used tobacco product among middle and high school students, according to the CDC and FDA.
The increasing use and negative toll on teen health — including addiction — has led many districts nationwide to sue JUUL, an e-cigarette brand that also disguises its vape devices as USB flash drives, for allegedly advertising to youth.
"Actually, schools across the state and even across the country have been dedicating both financial and personnel resources to address the vaping issue," said David Mustonen, communications director for Dearborn Public Schools in Michigan.
Mustonen and others stress engaging parents and taking an educational approach to prevention, such as offering informational presentations for students and parents. Some schools have also installed vape detection devices in bathrooms.
This year, Citrus County School Board approved a measure allowing a vape-sniffing police dog into school hallways to sniff out vape pens, nicotine and THC starting in the 2023-24 school year.
Vincent, who originally proposed the use of a trained K-9 in schools, said Sammy, the dog, is still in his training stages, but the process is "very positive so far."
"We are a few weeks away from being able to conduct searches at schools, but I can tell you that the students are aware, and we hope a big part of this program is the deterrent of bringing those items to school knowing that Sammy is around," said Vincent.