Proposed ordinance would raise fee for underage vaping on school grounds

SHERIDAN — Next week, Sheridan City Council will proceed with the first reading of an ordinance increasing the financial penalty for juveniles vaping tobacco on school grounds.

The penalty could increase as much as 2,900 percent from the current fee of $25 to a maximum of $750, according to city attorney Brendon Kerns.

The ordinance was requested by Sheridan County School District 2 and should be in effect by early September — just in time for the new school year.

The city’s current penalties for underage vaping are a mere slap on the wrist, according to Kerns. 

In addition to the minimal fine, students caught vaping are not required to appear in court or perform community service or serve probation. They are guaranteed full expungement of the incident from their criminal records within six months — regardless of whether it is their first or subsequent offense.

The minor $25 penalty simply isn’t enough to get the job done and keep kids on the right path, according to Kerns.

“Kids don’t care about $25,” Kerns said. “It doesn’t matter to them. Most of these kids have that in their pocket every day.”

Dan White has served as the disciplinarian for Sheridan Junior High School for eight years. He said tobacco usage has exploded at the school since he started — primarily in the form of vaping.

“When I first started the position I currently hold…I was seeing maybe seven or eight kids at the junior high that might get caught with a cigarette or a can of chew or something like that,” White said. “Just last year, our total number for the junior high was 46 students actually caught with a tobacco product. Ninety-eight percent of those were vaping devices.”

White said the rise of vaping is a major health concern in the schools and encouraged the city council to get involved.

“No. 1, it’s a health concern,” White said. “That’s the primary focus. Anytime you inhale things in your lungs, it’s not good. You look at what’s in a vape, there is a lot of stuff that these kids who are in a developmental stage, they don’t need to be inhaling this stuff.”

One vape pod contains the nicotine of 20 cigarettes, according to SCSD2 Superintendent Scott Stults.

“This is not something that can be fixed,” Stults said. “It can’t be taken back. That’s permanent damage these kids are doing to their lungs.”

The consideration of the ordinance is moving ahead at full speed due to the council’s desire to have something in effect by the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, Mayor Rich Bridger said. But there will likely be changes made before final approval.

Councilors expressed concern about some of the language in the ordinance. Particularly, they wondered whether the ordinance should be effective not just on school grounds, but citywide. They also discussed making the ordinance applicable to everyone younger than 21. In its draft language, the ordinance only applies to those younger than 18.

Kerns said the draft ordinance was intended as a litmus test of sorts to determine the council’s interest in addressing the issue. He said he would be happy to make suggested changes to the ordinance over the next three readings.

While councilors were generally favorable toward the draft ordinance, Councilor Kristen Jennings questioned how much impact it would have.

“Will $750 deter them? I don’t know,” Jennings said. “Mostly because, who pays that? Probably the parents…So that becomes the question, is there a way to implement something that will directly affect the child?”

Stults admitted the ordinance was not a magic bullet, and it won’t singlehandedly solve a long-festering problem in the district. While he hopes it will make an impact, he also noted it was just one valuable tool in the district’s tool chest.

“I think the fine is one thing,” Stults said. “I know $25 is a pittance, and that does not stop students from choosing to think about that before they do the act. Seven-hundred-and-fifty dollars — that’s a lot of money. Will that deter them from vaping? Maybe, but I think more important is educating our kids…Community service is another strong initiative and an important part of this consideration as well.”

The vaping ordinance will have its first reading during the Sheridan City Council’s Aug. 2 meeting. The council will be able to alter the ordinance during any of its three readings.