The Silent Sensors
When Glen Cove High School officials realized they were seeing the beginning of a health crisis among the student population, administrators started searching for methods or tools that could help extinguish these behaviors.
According to Principal Antonio Santana, over the past year students at the school increasingly replaced traditional cigarettes and marijuana paraphernalia with electronic cigarettes, like Juul, and cannabis pens. “We were catching kids almost on a daily basis,” Santana says.
“We figured if we were catching a handful of kids every week, how many more were doing it undetected?” he adds.
In a survey conducted by the school, about 40 percent of the Long Island high school’s thousand students admitted to using e-cigarettes or cannabis pens. Even with 85 faculty members and a staff of 150, plus scanners at the entrance and digital security cameras in the hallways, Santana knew the school needed something that directly targeted this issue. Although administrators provided character education about tobacco and marijuana abuse, Santana wanted a method that would effectively but unobtrusively supervise bathrooms—where students frequently vaped—to ultimately deter vaping on school grounds, all without requiring a significant overhaul to the facilities, which were built in the 1950s.
Justin Lander, director of technology, says most students were savvy enough to avoid being caught vaping by security guards or faculty by regularly changing location. “They could vape sort of without consequence,” Lander says. “It was pretty rampant…. Anytime you walked into a bathroom, it was probably happening.”
Administrators relied on oral or anonymous accounts that relayed incidents of vaping or bullying. “So, if you heard that something happened in the bathroom, and you tried to go back, it was like a puzzle,” Lander says. At times, the surveillance cameras could help, but they did not cover the entire school and could not be installed in bathrooms.
Lander’s relationship with administrators and his office’s location in Glen Cove High School made him aware of the issue. So when he spotted the HALO smart sensors—IPVideo’s vape, sound, air quality, and chemical detection devices—at a conference and heard they could alert users when someone was vaping in an area, Landers knew Santana would be interested. Even though it was the first time either of them had seen a vape sensor, they decided to perform a test run in a few of the school’s bathrooms. By then, administrators knew vaping was an issue they needed to get under control.
The installation process—which occurred after school hours to keep students unaware—was largely manned by the vendor, IPVideo Corp, and involved wiring the HALO sensor to a power source and into the school’s network. After connecting the device, it was easily clipped into the dropped ceiling’s frame.
While setting up the HALOs, Lander input staff members’ phone numbers into the system and named each sensor according to its location and whether the device was in a men’s or women’s restroom. Identifying these aspects before activating the sensors helps responders know where they are going, and it helps administrators select the right responder to send. “It identifies a women’s bathroom, so we know certain people have to go to that one,” Lander says. “We can’t just send the male security guards down there.”
Once online, Santana says the sensors worked well, especially in conjunction with security cameras. If a student vaped in a school bathroom, certain building administrators and security staff would receive a text message or SMS notification alerting them about the time and location. Since staff would not always be able to immediately run to the site, they relied on the stored video footage. Santana would review the video (which runs 24 hours a day and stores 30 days’ worth of footage) and find which student entered the specific bathroom at the triggered time, according to the sensor. “That’s how we investigate…. We would call the kids in, and typically we would find the devices on them,” Santana says.
In addition to notifying times during which the sensor registered vaping, the HALO sensor also provided data on the molecular makeup of various sprays and vapors, allowing the user to distinguish between vapors from a Juul or overuse of a body spray, for example, Santana says.
Overall, having access to accurate reports from the sensors has been as helpful as the video footage from the cameras, allowing the school to efficiently confiscate e-cigarettes and vape pens from several students.
With students vaping in closed spaces, one issue administrators have to deal with is recognizing false alarms due to lingering fumes from electronic cigarettes after the initial hit, Santana explains. “If you see a sequence of hits that happened within a couple of minutes of each other, typically it just means that it’s kind of lingering,” Santana says.
Lingering fumes aside, the HALOs continue to operate accurately and consistently. “They’ve worked perfectly since the day they were set up,” Lander says.
Santana and Lander agree that it is unlikely that students have detailed knowledge about the sensors—usually centered in the bathroom or over an area where students are likely to vape—given how they easily, almost seamlessly, camouflage with the ceiling. In addition, not only are the alarms silent, but the HALOs also lack front-facing blinking lights that would attract attention.
Regardless of the physical camouflage, the accuracy of the sensors is perhaps the feature that exposed it. “For the last few weeks, we have not gotten any hits,” Santana says. And while a lack of electronic cigarettes on school grounds is the desired result, Santana adds that this outcome also means that students are avoiding vaping in the bathrooms. Savvy students realized there was something in the bathrooms that alerted administrators about precisely who was vaping, and when and where.
Despite the students’ growing awareness of the devices, school administrators decided to expand use of the sensors to every bathroom and locker room in the high school and are also considering installing HALOs in middle school areas.
“We don’t think we’ll ever extinguish the behaviors completely, but at the very least we make it difficult for students to engage with them in the building,” Santana says.
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