BEL AIR, Md. — When you take a look at the numbers, the problem is obvious.
"Necessity is the mother of invention. We needed to make this change," said Buzz Williams, Supervisor of Pupil Personnel for Harford County Public Schools.
After seeing a rise in students using tobacco products in school, Williams knew the change that needed to happen. It's not a big one, but it's keeping more students in class and prioritizes their health and education. It's a new online course on tobacco and its various forms. It's the new form of discipline for students who get caught using in school.
"We need to create something that was adaptable, flexible and could grow with the increased demand," said Williams.
In just two years, Williams said the school system saw a 430 percent increase in students violating the no-tobacco policy. From 64 in 2016-17, to 344 in 2018-19 school year. Last year, nearly every student caught was suspended but it could be reduced from five days to one if the student took an in-person class at the Harford County Health Department. The increase was hard for county employees to handle.
"There was such an influx of students that were getting caught and we needed to find a different, more effective way to educate these policy violators," said Ronya Nassar, a health policy analyst for the health department.
So Nassar helped create the hour-long, interactive Tobacco 1.0 class with videos, a quiz and short essay.
"We're hoping with the more education and more information or counter-marketing that this [usage] will be able to be reduced," said Nassar.
But it's not the only change. While the current tobacco discipline policy is under review, a new guideline means first-time offenders face a maximum 1-day suspension instead of five and that's only if they choose not to do the class or don't successfully complete it.
The result... only 25 percent have been suspended this year, compared to 98 percent last year.
"The new guideline is actually intervention. Some people call restorative practice or rehabilitative opportunity in place of suspension," said Williams.
So far this year, 28 students have been caught and 7 suspended. This is much less than last year, but still more than years prior. Williams doesn't know if it means there are less students using, or just less getting caught, but he believes it's in part due to administrators letting students know they are going to be watchful.
"There's been an emphasis early in the year about tobacco vaping and Juul and with that awareness comes students' change of behavior," said Williams.
One thing he has heard: Juul is becoming more popular and could be going undetected.
"It's accessible. It's affordable and it's detectable but not as detectable as other devices. We have students reporting to us that they can Juul in the middle of class and not be detected by the teacher," said Williams.
It's something that won't change overnight, but they hope these changes will create an eventual change in student usage.
"We're hoping that with the work we're doing that we will be able to see it decrease," said Nassar.
It's still possible for repeat offenders to be suspended multiple days for tobacco use but there are more provisions in place to keep kids in class. Williams said they have had other Maryland school systems reach out of guidance in starting an online course of their own.