HARWICH — When it comes to controlling vaping, smoking or other nicotine use among students, Monomoy High School has traditionally had an old-school approach, issuing multiple-day suspensions when kids violate the rules.
“We’re rethinking that,” Assistant Principal Janie Girolamo told the school committee recently. “It really doesn’t serve any purpose” to have violators miss out on their classes and miss out on an opportunity to educate them about the dangers of vaping and tobacco, she said. This year, the school will be using “Project Connect” to intervene directly with users and work to reduce their nicotine use.
While Project Connect is about nicotine cessation in general, there’s no denying that there’s a focus on e-cigarettes.
“Vaping is the wave that has hit society in general, not just our school,” she told the school committee on July 18. While some youngsters are using the devices to inhale THC, a marijuana extract, most are using Juul devices or other easily-available e-cigarettes that deliver nicotine. “When this rage hit, you no longer smelled smoking in the bathrooms. We haven’t smelled that in years,” she said. “You would smell this little sweet smell. Some of the pods are flavored – strawberry, raspberry, cherry.” Now, users are wise to that odor and choose unscented vaping pods. “It is very, very hard to detect this,” Girolamo said.
When they are found to be vaping, students will be enrolled in Project Connect, a series of eight 45-minute sessions held once a week during the school’s Jawsome Hour. Classes are limited to around 10 students, and are designed to foster an open, candid dialogue, Girolamo said. Developed by Caron Treatment Centers, a network of addiction recovery centers, the program is being adapted for Monomoy’s use by the district’s nurse leader, Cheryl Dufault. Sessions will be conducted by Dufault and two other staffers and cover the cycle of addiction, the health consequences of nicotine products and peer pressure. The curriculum includes lessons and activities about resiliency, goal-setting, stress management and decision making, along with social skills and students’ self-image.
Some of the participants in Project Connect will also be there voluntarily, Girolamo said. School officials will encourage students to come forward if they use nicotine outside of school and would like help kicking the habit.
“We would like this not to just be a result of getting caught, but we would like students to look at this as a way to do something proactively,” she said. Having a mixture of students in each session will help foster a good dialogue, Girolamo added.
While some students will likely see Project Connect as a form of punishment, it is designed to be engaging and interactive, if not necessarily fun, Dufault said. The program’s goals are simple: to give students the motivation to quit and stay nicotine-free, to identify barriers to quitting, and to come up with a personalized plan for each student’s success. Project Connect also identifies and promotes healthy lifestyle choices.
There’s evidence that the program works, Dufault added. Nearly 3,000 students have gone through Project Connect in several states, and nearly 93 percent report that they’ve had positive changes in their behavior. More than 97 percent of participants said they had a better knowledge of the risks and consequences of nicotine use, and most importantly, more than half —55 percent—reduced their nicotine use on a weekly basis.
“We don’t expect every student is going to quit using altogether, but just like anything else in life, we need to practice a balance and we can hopefully teach these kids some resilience,” Dufault said. The skills apply to alcohol use and other harmful behaviors, not just smoking or vaping. The Monomoy Schools will continue to use its own “Healthy Choices” program for students caught with marijuana, alcohol or other substances, but will channel the nicotine users to Project Connect.
“This program is designed specifically for adolescents, and unfortunately today, the numbers are rising of the kids that are now addicted to nicotine,” Dufault said.
As part of the roll-out of Project Connect, the schools will have an informational session for all students, and will also offer a session for interested parents to attend. Many parents don’t know much about vaping and may be unaware that their children are doing it.
Though some details are still being worked out, the eight-week program is expected to be repeated several times during the school year to allow new students to attend as needed.
“We do want to offer it on a rolling basis,” Girolamo said.