Vaping in the bathroom: Does keeping doors ‘locked open’ actually work?

  • Northampton High School freshman Jleigh Cochrane talks about changes to the school’s bathroom doors, which are now bolted open to prevent vaping, during an interview on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School junior Linnea Zimmer talks about changes to the school’s bathroom doors, which are now bolted open to prevent vaping, during an interview on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School students, from left, Asher Davis, Leon Grossman and Isaac Porter-Phillips talk about changes to the school’s bathroom doors, which are now bolted open to prevent vaping, during an interview on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School student Leon Grossman talks about changes to the school’s bathroom doors, which are now bolted open to prevent vaping, during an interview on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton High School students Leon Grossman, left, and Isaac Porter-Phillips talk about changes to the school’s bathroom doors, which are now bolted open to prevent vaping, during an interview on Friday, Dec. 6, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 12/13/2019 4:42:58 PM
Modified: 12/13/2019 4:42:44 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Recently, Northampton High School junior Catherine Shaw has found herself in a lot of conversations about a topic she’d never really entertained before.

“I’ve never talked about the bathroom more than I have this year,” she said. That’s because last spring, the high school started to keep some bathroom doors wide open with a lock, in response to growing concern about student vaping in restrooms — an approach that is being debated among students.

According to the Hampshire County Prevention Needs Assessment Survey — which polled nearly all of the students in eighth, 10th and 12th grade in the county — twice as many students reported past 30-day use of an electronic cigarette, JUUL or vape pen in 2019 compared to those in a similar survey in 2017.

Before the district began bolting open bathroom doors, “we were hearing from many students who felt it wasn’t safe for them to go to the bathroom,” Northampton Public Schools Superintendent John Provost said. “Vaping was so prevalent, they couldn’t use the bathroom without being exposed to second-hand vape.”

The practice does not apply to single-stall and private bathrooms or gender-neutral restrooms in the nurse’s office, said the high school’s interim principal, Lori Vaillancourt. But for boys’ and girls’ multi-stall bathrooms throughout the school, the main door is locked open with a bolt that’s latched into the floor.

Though the door is open, “there is a barrier so nobody walking by the bathroom can see anything that’s going on,” said Vaillancourt, who noted that this year the number of students caught vaping in bathrooms has decreased.

Shaw and some of her fellow classmates and friends, including seniors Maeve Zoledziewski and Desiree Maldonado, dislike the practice, while other students feel it’s effective.

“Sometimes people have conversations in the bathroom,” Zoledziewski said. “For instance, I’ve walked by the bathroom before, and I’ve heard people talking about how they think they are pregnant, and they don’t know who to go to — like crying, not knowing what to do. It’s a space that is supposed to be private but is not anymore.”

Even before the doors were bolted open, students previously had serious privacy concerns about the bathrooms. “I’m sure you’re aware of what happened with the janitor,” Zoledziewski said to the Gazette. “Everyone’s already on edge from that.”

In 2018, Michael Kremensky, a former custodian at the school, was sentenced to 2½ years in jail for “photographing an unsuspecting person in the nude.” He was arrested after several holes were found in the ceiling of the first-floor girls’ bathroom and he admitted to photographing someone naked there.

Maldonado was unhappy about losing privacy with the open doors. “I’d never expect them to take that away,” she said of the administrators.

“It’s basically a bad response to vaping and trying to come up with this thing that’s going to band-aid it,” she said. “These people are addicted — they’re not going to stop because you’re taking away their privacy.”

As members of ShoutOut!, an afterschool leadership program run by Community Action Pioneer Valley, Maldonado and Zoledziewski are trying to find ways to help students who want to quit vaping.

In an episode released Friday of the student video news program, The Transcript, one student spoke about privacy issues in some bathrooms with open doors. He said he has been at the urinal in a restroom and made eye contact with people in the hallway.

Though the bathrooms are less private, freshman Jleigh Cochrane said she thinks the practice is helping cut down on vaping. “I feel like it’s a good thing,” she said.

Junior Linnea Zimmer agreed that more vaping is likely to happen behind closed doors. “I like that they’re locked open,” she said, standing outside the high school on a recent afternoon. “I think it does limit it somewhat.” She added that vaping can divide students who might otherwise be friends. “It really separates bodies of students,” she said.

Leon Grossman disagreed, comparing the practice to another preventive approach sometimes pressed on teenagers. “It’s like abstinence,” he said. “It’s stupid. It doesn’t work.” His friend, Isaac Porter-Phillips, doesn’t like the practice, either. “I think they should take a different direction — something preferred by students,” he said after school one day last week. “There’s a vaping epidemic going on in those bathrooms.”

A growing problem

Despite varying student opinion on the open doors, administrators and students alike agree on one point: Vaping is an issue.

The district did an assessment of its response to vaping and found it needed to implement more “environmental controls” or “doing things to make the environment less conducive to vaping in schools,” Provost explained.

Making the bathrooms feel less private was part of the goal. “One of the reasons why the bathroom doors are now locked open is to take away — as strange as it sounds — the sense of privacy within bathrooms,” Provost told the Gazette in October.

According to the Hampshire County Prevention Needs Assessment Survey, about 25 percent of Hampshire County eighth, 10th and 12th graders reported using an electronic vaping product in the past 30 days. The Strategic Planning Initiative for Families and Youth Coalition administers the survey every two years, and its most recent report includes data from nearly 3,000 students in the county. Nationwide, more than 6 million middle and high school-age youth used tobacco products in 2019, NPR recently reported.

Some students at Northampton High School are so concerned about vaping they’ve reached out to administrators about it, asking about resources to help quit doing it. “We’ve heard from some of our students that cessation services may be beneficial — however, they’ve been talking about peers,” Provost said. “What I’d like to hear is from students who are currently vaping, if they feel cessation would be helpful and, if so, what types of cessation services we could direct them to.”

A recent survey in the schools may help Provost get that information. Earlier this month, students in fifth through 12th grades took a 44-question survey that asks why they are vaping, among other points. “It gets at, are in you need of cessation help, and what would that look like?” said Ananda Lennox, coordinator of the Northampton Prevention Coalition, a group that uses education to prevent substance use among young people.

Lennox hopes to get more information about how students acquire vaping devices; she often hears that kids get them from friends. “But where did the friend get it from?” she asked.

The results of the survey have not yet been released. In the meantime, many bathroom doors remain locked open.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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