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Burnsville-Eagan-Savage fine-tunes vaping policy, though some question enforcement

A surge of vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths around the country has given new urgency to keeping electronic cigarette products out of middle and high schools, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District officials said.

But some Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District administrators and students said anti-vaping policies can be difficult to enforce.

“It shouldn’t be in schools, I agree, but I think that staff is not doing a great job enforcing that,” Yodahit Philipos, the Board of Education’s student representative, told the board earlier this month. “Kids still bring it, hide in the bathrooms, use it — so it really hasn’t changed.”

The district bans any student, teacher, administrator or other personnel or visitor from smoking or using tobacco and tobacco-related devices, among other rules. The board this month voted to broaden the ban to include a variety of vaping devices and to also bar anyone from even carrying the devices on school property.

Director of Human Resources Stacey Sovine told the board updating the policy can help keep up with smoking technology and also implement recommendations from the Minnesota School Boards Association.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week counted over 800 cases of lung injury and 12 deaths related to use of vaping devices. Sixteen percent of the cases were reported in people under 18 years old.

Medical experts and health officials have yet to determine an exact cause of the illnesses, Irina Stepanov, an associate professor with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said in news release from the university this month. Researchers are looking at the chemical composition of e-cigarette aerosols, including a wide variety of unregulated liquids.

Officials from states around the country are placing temporary bans on the sale of certain vaping products, but Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said this week that state laws ban him from doing the same, according to MPR News.

Board Chairwoman Abigail Alt questioned how easily the policy can be enforced and wondered how school staff would find out a student is carrying vaping products at school.

Superintendent Brian Gersich said an administrator would most likely catch a student using the device or finding the device during a lawful search.

“A lot of times it’s during those searches that a lot of other kinds of devices that you may not have been originally looking for come out,” he said. “It’s a matter of saying it’s in policy and if we find these things we don’t want them here.”

Boardmember DeeDee Currier said she hopes news of vaping-related lung illness will change that, and she encouraged high school teachers and administrators to have more conversations with students.

Erika Nesvig, principal at Eagle Ridge Middle School in Savage, said vaping is also a concern in middle schools.

“It’s hard for us because I really feel like, the way it’s set up, kids are going to want to do it,” she said. “It’s very appealing to kids.”

Nesvig said there are fewer instances of students using vaping devices at the middle schools; more often students tell a staff member their friend is using the products outside of school.

“That’s not to say it never happens at the middle schools, because it does,” she said, adding the devices pose a particular challenge to administrators and parents because they carry no smell and often resemble other small objects.

She said they focus on making it a learning experience when they do run into vaping. Sometimes they have students read about the practice or complete a small project about what they learned.

“It’s not punishment but a learning experience,” she said.

Students learn about smoking products in seventh-grade health class, but school staff are also looking for ways to educate parents.

“A lot of parents don’t have any idea what to look for, and that’s a part of the challenge, too,” Nesvig said.

There’s currently no school-wide effort to address the issue, she said, but it’s something they are looking to add.

Here's the forum schedule for Burnsville-Eagan-Savage's possible closures

Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District officials are on-track to finalize a plan for possible school closures, grade restructuring and boundary changes in December. Events to gather public input are set to begin next month. 

The Board of Education expects a recommended plan for closures on Nov. 14 before a final plan vote on Dec. 12. A public hearing on the proposal, required by state law, is scheduled for Dec. 4.

Before then, several public focus groups will center around "identifying the criteria that should be used in selecting which schools to close, as well as identifying questions and concerns that will need to be addressed," the district said in a news release. 

The meetings are scheduled as follows:

  • Eagle Ridge Middle School on Oct. 2 at 6 p.m. for families from Eagle Ridge, M.W. Savage, Hidden Valley and Harriet Bishop school attendance areas. 
  • Metcalf Middle School on Oct. 7 at 6 p.m. for families from Metcalf, Sioux Trail, William Byrne, Rahn and Sky Oaks school attendance areas. 
  • Nicollet Middle School on Oct. 9 at 6 p.m. for families from Nicollet, Edward Neill, Gideon Pond, Sky Oaks and Vista View school attendance areas. 

Focus groups will also cater to Spanish- and Somali-speakers. Those will be held at the Diamondhead Education Center:

  • Oct. 14 at 6 p.m. for groups facilitated in Spanish. 
  • Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. for groups facilitated in Somali.

Residents can also give their thoughts online at www.isd191.org/facilities. 

A review completed by a consultant this summer found underused facilities significantly contributed to the district’s financial strain, which has led to millions of dollars in spending cuts. It recommended closing two elementary schools and one middle school and selling the Diamondhead Education Center at the end of next school year.

Eight schools operate significantly under capacity when compared to state standards, according to the review, but Assistant Superintendent Brian Gersich said earlier this month any elementary and middle school could close. 

Dr. Roger Worner, a consultant with over 20 years of experience and an expert on facility planning, will oversee the process and guarantee the oversight of a neutral, third-party, Gersich said. 

The facilities review process is one part of a plan to realign district operations with its needs, according to the news release. Other components of the plan include the fall levy referendum election in November, program innovation and financial management. 

"These steps will provide an integrated approach to addressing the district's challenges, including declining enrollment, chronic state and federal under-funding, schools/buildings that are operating under capacity, and perceptions of safety/student discipline issues, all while continuing its commitment to innovative programming through VisionOne91," the district's website reads.