NEWBURYPORT — As a nurse and supervisor of health services at the city's schools, Cathy Riccio thinks more needs to be done to prevent local students from becoming addicted to vaping.

"These students are getting hooked," Riccio told a crowd of about 40 at a public forum on vaping hosted by the School Committee on Monday night. "They didn't know the degree of severity."  

The two-hour forum allowed families to hear from experts about the effects of vaping nicotine and other substances, to learn about the resources available in the schools and in the community for students battling addiction, and to submit questions. 

The crowd in the Nock/Molin School auditorium was made up of mostly parents and guardians of middle and high school students.

Speaking on the purpose of such a forum, Superintendent Sean Gallagher said, "If our students or our families are struggling with vaping, with addiction and other substances, then we all have the resources to really help our students." 

Gallagher emphasized the forum's importance, saying in the years he's spent in education, he has led countless conversations about "alcohol, nicotine and marijuana" and their roles as "gateway drugs."

Cynthia Grondin, a vaping expert and research scientist at North Carolina State University, discussed the health effects of products such as Juul and dismissed the notion that, "Vaping is just inhaling flavored water vapor."

In demonstrating the chemical particles left behind after a person vapes, Grondin showed two side-by-side images: one of air in a room and another of that same air after a person has exhaled vapor from a device such as an electronic cigarette. The particles were analyzed and revealed traces of heavy metals such as tin and nickel.

Grondin also noted that a single Juul pod contains 59 milligrams of nicotine, or the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes.

Following Grondin's presentation, Riccio laid out the district's plan for addressing vaping within the schools and reminded the audience that addiction is "a disease, not a choice."

After speaking with middle and high school students, Riccio said she saw the need to provide health and wellness resources to students as young as third-graders.

"You create something called a circular curriculum so that each topic gets talked about as we swirl around and get older and older, so that we keep reinforcing the healthy behaviors," she said.

The district's plan features components of student education, parent education, staff education, setting up vaping protocols, establishing medical support, and following up with students throughout recovery.

The school district will work with students battling nicotine addiction either through an in-house diversion program or by sending students to receive counseling support through the Positive Alternatives to Student Suspension program.

The program, also known as PASS, is based in Beverly and provides students with one-on-one tutoring and counseling, as well as support groups.

Gary Gastman, executive director of addiction and counseling services for families and students at Link House, spoke with Chris Turner, director of ambulatory services at Link House, about its new Center for Behavioral Health and Addiction Treatment Services in Amesbury and the conversations they have had with teenagers.

"They care about their health," Turner said, adding that they do the research and "care about their bodies."

In advising parents, Turner said, "Get educated yourselves and make sure that your information is correct before you deliver that to your kids who often times, know more than we do."

Parents were allowed to submit written questions following the presentations. Those questions will be answered later by the experts and the school administration.

For more information, go to newburyport.k12.ma.us/District--Parent-Info/Parents/VapingSubstance-Abuse-What-You-Should-Know-/index.html.

Staff reporter Heather Alterisio can be reached via email at halterisio@newburyportnews.com or by phone at 978-961-3149. Follow her on Twitter @HeathAlt.

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