13 Investigates controversial Texas crackdown on e-cigarette use in schools in HB114

Jonathan Bruce Image
Thursday, May 16, 2024
13 Investigates controversial crackdown on e-cig use in schools
ABC13 revisits the e-cigarette ban in school, HB114, which went into effect last year, with punishment identical to those with more serious offenses.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As the school year comes to a close in Texas, 13 Investigates is re-examining HB114, a controversial law that went into effect this year and aims to curb e-cigarette use among students.

Over the year, ABC13 heard from parents and experts both praising and opposing the law, sponsored by State Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Brazoria County, that requires mandatory placement in an alternative school for any student caught in possession of an e-cigarette.

"We wanted to have the ability to put some teeth into the fact that this is a serious situation. We felt like it was important the school districts had the ability to get kids' attention," Thompson told ABC13 in a sit-down interview.

More than 2.1 million students across the country reported using e-cigarettes in 2023, according to a survey study from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The study showed a rise in use among middle school students.

In Texas, ABC13 has reported e-cigarette use among elementary school students, with leading experts in the field explaining the severity of the trend.

SEE MORE: 13 Investigates: Texas senator urges HISD track vaping incidents

"It's a pernicious problem. The foremost harm of e-cigarettes is the addiction process. Kids smoke them, they get addicted, and it stays for life," Dr. Steven Kelder of UTHealth said.

The new Texas law that went into effect Sept. 1 adds possession of an e-cigarette to Section 37 of the Texas Education Code. That section details some of the most serious offenses a student can commit and requires removal from school. The felony offenses include bringing a gun to school, making terroristic threats, and violent assault.

Celeste Milligan, a Houston Independent School District parent of two and co-chair of the district advisory committee, said the punishment doesn't fit the crime.

"Sending kids to a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program (DAEP) school for a first-time vaping offense is ineffective, cruel, and harmful. Frankly, we shouldn't be surprised when our kids are using something that's been marketed to them. And instead of punishing them, at least initially, what we should be doing is trying to help them and educate them," Milligan said.

How many students have been caught at the Houston area's largest school districts? 13 Investigates digs into the numbers and how the districts have taken on HB114, tonight on Eyewitness News at 10 p.m. on ABC13.

ABC13 data requests show that, as of May 1, more than 1,300 students from our area's largest school districts were sent to alternative schools this school year for e-cigarette violations. In HISD, 244 students; in Katy, 399; and in Cy-Fair ISD, 638.

Rep. Thompson said the law's impact is being felt in Brazoria County, with a reduced number of cases being referred to juvenile justice.

"I wanted to give the schools the ability to be able to address that. The worst thing in the world is for a kid to make a mistake and have a (criminal) record," Thompson said.

However, placement in an alternative school setting can lead to more severe outcomes, what many experts refer to as a school-to-prison pipeline. A 2020 Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) study showed students removed from school for non-criminal offenses in Texas were 23% more likely to have future contact with the justice system.

University of Texas at Austin research from 2021 found ninth graders sent to DAEP even once were 33% less likely to graduate than their peers.

Experts are questioning whether punishment is an effective deterrent to nicotine use in the first place.

"This particular approach is maybe a little heavy-handed, especially since I'm not hearing too much about what to do if you're addicted. Most professionals think you need a curative or a treatment orientation, rather a solely punitive one," Kelder said.

The bill allows for but does not require substance abuse education. In the interview, Rep. Thompson told ABC13 that the state should reconsider the extremes of the law.

"There's no legislation that's going to be perfect. We're going to end up in situations where there are going to be unintended consequences of any piece of legislation," Thompson said.

In defending the bill, Thompson and his staff pointed out that it passed almost unanimously through the Texas House and Senate and that a required review process is already built into the Texas Education Code.

Some parents and educators wrote to ABC13 to support the severe action against e-cigarettes. However, local school districts with the District of Innovation designation have found other ways to address the issue.

HISD voted to reclassify the violation to prevent a mandatory placement. Fort Bend ISD created a substance abuse program for first-time offenders focused on prevention and education. Cy-Fair ISD is among the districts that confirmed that certain students were not sent to DAEPs after the disciplinary review process.

For updates on this story, follow Jonathan Bruce on Facebook, X and Instagram.

SEE ALSO: HISD looks to get around new state vaping law under its new designation as 'District of Innovation'

As a "District of Innovation," Houston ISD can get around certain state laws, and it's trying to do just that with one that deals with vaping.