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Lynn schools trade suspension for intervention program to educate students about vaping

LYNN — Students suspended for substance-use infractions will be sent off campus to Beverly for educational and therapeutic intervention, part of a new program in Lynn Public Schools.

Administrative officials believe the intervention alternative is more beneficial for kids than simply missing school days.

The main reason students are being sent to that day program is vaping, also a leading reason for suspension in the district.

Halfway through the school year, 80 students have been suspended for vaping in 75 incidents, which has resulted in 128 total days of suspension at the middle and high school level, according to Superintendent Dr. Patrick Tutwiler.

“That’s a lot of incidents for essentially half the year,” said Tutwiler, explaining the majority of vaping suspensions are for use, but also include possession of paraphernalia. “It is a significant concern.”

Lynn Public Schools started participating in the program, Positive Alternatives to Student Suspension (PASS) in January, offered through the Northshore Consortium. As a partner district, Lynn is paying $10,000 to participate this school year, according to Tutwiler.

The program, a partnership between the Greater Beverly YMCA and Northshore Recovery High School, which provides an education for teens affected by substance abuse and is an arm of Northshore Consortium, was offered as a pilot last year with four schools participating, Peabody, Beverly, Ipswich and Gloucester, according to the Salem News.

Students sent to the day program receive time for homework, therapy, or counseling with certified clinicians around vaping or substance use and education around the topic.

“I’m all for any solution to keeping our students in school to learn toward their education and to learn what acceptable behavior is,” said School Committee member Michael Satterwhite. “Whether our students are preparing for a career or to further their education, behavior is a key component.”

Tutwiler said there are a lot of stones that need to be turned to adopt the program in Lynn Public Schools, rather than send students to Beverly. Finding the space is a major hurdle, as is budgeting for the required staff.

“We’re seeing how this goes this year and philosophically, we think it makes a lot of sense,” Tutwiler said. “Therapy or education always yields stronger outcomes than a simple suspension … We would rather educate students or provide therapy, provide them with those tools going forward than (have them) simply not attending school.”

Although Tutwiler cites vaping as an issue that is widespread in the school district, he said the city of Lynn is not alone in experiencing the prevalence of vaping among adolescents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2017, 3.6 million middle and high school students were using tobacco products, with 2.1 million favoring e-cigarettes.

The school district’s focus on vaping and participation in an intervention program comes as the city’s Board of Health is considering taking steps to ban vaping among kids, following the lead of Somerville, which became the first city in the state to ban the sale of electronic cigarettes and menthol cigarettes in stores that are open to youths, the Boston Globe reported.

Michele Desmarais, the city’s public health director, said the ban should exist in the city but it’s something that needs to be further explored. The first step would be issuing a policy that restricts flavored “other tobacco products” from being sold in the retail environment and move them into adults-only establishments.

The Board of Health is holding a discussion on the proposed policy at their meeting next month, which would take all flavored nicotine and tobacco products out of stores and restrict them to adults-only establishments. The policy has been adopted in at least 140 communities throughout the state, including Lynnfield, Marblehead, Peabody, Salem and Saugus.

“I think that hopefully banning the flavors would deter middle school and high school students from starting to vape,” said Desmarais. “I think that high schoolers and middle schoolers think of it as a cool thing to do.”

Unlike Somerville, which opted to include menthol, mint and wintergreen as flavors in their policy, Lynn’s potential restriction would allow the sale of those flavors in retail stores.

There are more than 8,000 flavors, which are designed to attract young people as they take away the harshness of nicotine, according to Joyce Redford, director of the North Shore/Cape Ann Tobacco Policy Program.

Redford said there’s no safe way to use e-cigarettes, noting that if kids start using nicotine in middle school before the brain is fully developed, it changes pathways in the brain and can cause mood disorders, anxiety and nicotine addiction.

She said one JUUL pod, one of the more popular e-cigarette products, has 59 milligrams of nicotine, the equivalent of one pack of cigarettes.

“We’ve realized from a federal level that this is an epidemic,” Redford said, referring to e-cigarette use among youths. “We certainly don’t need a new population addicted to anything in the city and our main job is to protect public health, obviously starting with people in middle and high school in terms of nicotine is really relevant and important.”

But Ward 2 Councilor Rick Starbard said a proposed flavor restriction and potential e-cigarette ban could put a lot of Lynn businesses at an unfair competitive disadvantage with surrounding communities. He said many people use e-cigarettes to try to kick a smoking habit.

With 140 tobacco retailers in the city, the restriction would limit flavored nicotine and vaping products to Lynn’s three adults-only smoke shops.

With youth vaping, Starbard said it comes down to parents educating their kids and knowing what they’re up to.

“If kids get access to it, (they’re) going to get access to it, whether it’s flavor or not,” he said.

If the Board of Health were to adopt the flavor restriction, it would follow the city’s 2017 decision to raise the legal age for buying tobacco products from 18 to 21.

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