Upper School Life


December 2018


From the Director's Chair



"What is Penn Charter doing about vaping?"

The question above is one I have heard often from parents this fall, along with, "Is Penn Charter doing anything about vaping?"  


The answers are: a lot and yes.

Some concerned parents have told me that their students report widespread vaping, even during classes and Meeting for Worship. That is a claim I have taken seriously. As much as parent concern might conjure images of Principal Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Assistant Principal Vernon from The Breakfast Club, I assure you that we are cognizant of this issue and focused on it. Do some Penn Charter kids vape? Yes. At school? Some have and some probably do, but just as your own high school administrators tried to keep you from smoking traditional cigarettes on campus, we aim to limit teens' exposure to negative stimuli (nicotine, alcohol, drugs, danger, assault, etc.).

Originally intended to be a safe "step down" device from traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes became widely available in 2007. Instead of producing tobacco smoke, e-cigarettes produce aerosol or vapor; hence, the term "vaping" was born. To vape is to inhale and exhale aerosol produced by an electric device made up of a mouthpiece, battery, heating element and cartridge containing e-juice or e-liquid.


The term e-cigarette, then, is a generic term for electronic devices that heat liquid and produce aerosol; they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, commonly called vapes, vape pens or Juuls. Typically, people "smoke" or vape liquid that contains nicotine. However, most teens believe the liquid to be flavored water and remain unaware of its nicotine contents. People can also vape THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana. Dabs and wax are concentrated forms of THC, and the specific devices for vaping them are called dab pens or wax pens (though vape devices can use THC). Generally, when people talk about vaping, they are talking about vaping substances with nicotine, and in this column, when I use the term vaping, I am talking about the e-cigarette use of nicotine.

First, vaping is not a Penn Charter problem; rather, teen vaping is a national problem. On Monday, December 17, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported survey results from the Monitoring the Future study, indicating that "37.3 percent of 12th graders report[ed] 'any vaping' in the past 12 months, compared to just 27.8 percent in 2017." Similarly, according to the FDA's National Youth Tobacco Survey, "1.5 million more students used e-cigarettes in 2018 vs. 2017."  That's a "78% increase [in e-cigarette use] among high school students."

To ask the question, "Why do teens vape?" begs the larger question, "Why do teens transgress?"

The chief goal of adolescence is establishing identity. In order to do that, teens learn in a variety of modes, including trial and error and experimenting with their likes, dislikes, beliefs and values. Teens both align with and compare themselves to their parents and peers, and in the process of maturing, they learn to manage stress and use both positive and, unfortunately, negative coping skills to do so. Gradually, adolescents become independent and individuated.


So, why do some teens vape? Why do they take up e-cigarettes when they know how awful traditional ones are for them? As I mentioned above, some teens don't realize that e-cigarettes contain nicotine. While I have read about that widely held misconception, I did not think Penn Charter students would be so ill-informed. I was wrong. One of the first students I talked to this year about vaping told me that he thought the cartridges contained only flavored water; at the same time, having vaped all summer, he was puzzled as to why he couldn't sit through a 40-minute class without the urge to vape. He did not realize he was addicted to nicotine. In fact, "adolescents are uniquely vulnerable to addiction," Jan Hoffman wrote in yesterday's New York Times; in her ominous article, "Addicted to Vaped Nicotine, Teenagers Have No Clear Path to Quitting," she outlines how health professionals are "alarmed by the addictive nature of nicotine in e-cigarettes and its impact on the developing brain."


Ignorance about nicotine aside, some teens might vape because doing so is taboo or rebellious. Some might vape because they lack fully developed prefrontal cortexes and, thus, lack impulse control and foresight. And some might vape because they are self-soothing, much like adults might have an extra cup of coffee to alert themselves in the afternoon or might have a glass of wine at the end of the day (when they know it would really be better if they went to the gym). Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain, tells parents, "You need to be your teens' frontal lobes until their brains are fully wired." Parents and educators, in loco parentis, can help students educate and regulate themselves, plan ahead, make "good choices."

This fall, I have pondered the vaping phenomenon when a teacher or administrator has asked why a student did (or didn't do) something . . . and the student has responded, "I don't know" or "I just wasn't thinking" or "It was fun." The latter response makes me think less about a teen's still-developing prefrontal cortex and more about the nucleus accumbens.  

Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg explains that the nucleus accumbens, the "pleasure center" of the brain, starts to grow in childhood, reaches peak size in adolescence and then starts to shrink. For this reason, Steinberg explains, "Nothing—whether it's being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice-cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music—will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager." Teens perceive risk just as accurately as adults do, Steinberg contends, but the potential reward for a teen's taking a risk . . . is exhilaration magnified.  

The lure of delighting peers, the temptation of the forbidden, the call of adventure—these indeed tickle the teen brain, and as Steinberg indicates in Age of Opportunity, this proclivity for pleasure can provide as much "opportunity" as it provides obstacles. Appeal to the nucleus accumbens, Steinberg suggests. Take your child to Terror Behind the Walls at Halloween. Take your child zip-lining. Let your child host a murder mystery dinner. Provide teens with adult-supervised experiences that stimulate brain development. Provide novel experiences. At Penn Charter, we try to do that in curricular and co-curricular ways, with class trips, the Senior Retreat, Spirit Week, PC/GA Day, Quaker Crew at the basketball games, Friends Multicultural Day, proms, Color Day, the senior rafting trip and more. The recent Upper School Winter Dance boasted a whopping 272 Upper School students and their guests, plus a heaping spoonful of enthusiastic Argentinean exchange students. Talk about a social risk! Dress up, talk to old friends, mingle with new acquaintances, dance . . .

So, what has Penn Charter done to address the national vaping problem in the Upper School? Last summer, we added language around e-cigarettes to our Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Student Handbook (pp. 42, 65). In our ninth grade health curriculum, nurse Debbie Foley uses the Stanford Tobacco Education Toolkit to educate students about vaping: the presence and addictive quality of nicotine, the deleterious effects of vapor, the marketing campaigns targeted at teens and more. Much to the annoyance of many students, we are monitoring traffic to and from the bathrooms, parked cars, and places where Upper School students are not supposed to be during the day (such as the Graham Athletics Center). Indignant students call this the "Juul Patrol." When we have concerns about students who frequent the bathrooms or other off-limits spaces, I talk with them and follow up with parents. Devoid of any medical issue, one student told me he left class three times per day to use the bathroom. Another student told me he often leaves class because he needs a "brain break" (I directed him to the water fountain and discussed strategies for re-focusing in class without leaving the room). If a student has a vaping problem, I offer help, information on cessation programs, names of addiction therapists. If they do not have a habit, I talk to them about self-regulation and consequences.

In addition to addressing vaping with students, we have done so with parents. Last year and again this fall, nurse Debbie Foley presented at Upper School parent forums: Vaping:  What Every Parent Should Know. Here are ideas for how you can address vaping at home:  

  1. Educate yourself about e-cigarettes and know what to look for.  Explore the links in this column. Better yet, attend our evening program next month: Brian Jennsen is a researcher and pediatrician at CHOP whose expertise is tobacco policy and smoking cessation. On Wednesday, January 30, at 7pm, Jennsen will address parents on the topic of teens and e-cigarettes.
  2. Model healthy behavior.
  3. Talk to your student about vaping; this resource from the Surgeon General may help: Talk with Your Teen About E-cigarettes.

As you will recall, one of Penn Charter's themes for the 2018-2019 school year is "health and wellness." Vaping is one of several issues we are addressing with very deliberate programming. At the first parent forum of the year, Ed-Tech Director Michael Moulton presented Screen Time Tools to help parents manage their teens' screen usage. In October, Upper School students attended an assembly with Andrew from Minding Your Mind who spoke about stress and depression he experienced in college. On Monday, January 7, at 8:15am, counselor Elizabeth Hitschler and learning specialist Karen Campbell will present at the next Upper School Parent Forum on stress management and study strategies parents can use to help students negotiate the end of Semester 1. On Wednesday, March 6, at 7pm, health educator Shafia Zaloom will speak to parents about healthy relationships among adolescents, healthy sexuality and sexual consent. The following day, March 7, Zaloom will work with the juniors and seniors, the Upper School faculty, and the Health Department.  


Thanks for partnering with us as we help guide students toward healthy living. I particularly hope to see you January 30 for Brian Jennsen's presentation on e-cigarettes and March 6 for Shafia Zaloom's on healthy relationships.

Meanwhile, have a wonderful winter break.

Erin Hughes
Acting Director of Upper School


3000 West School House Lane   Philadelphia, PA 19144