E-cigarette ban

Onalaska Middle School's new policy handbook will explicitly ban use of e-cigarettes on school property, something done in May for Onalaska High School. In June, the Onalaska Common Council approved a new ordinance that bans use of e-cigarettes anywhere that cigarette smoking is not allowed.

Onalaska Middle School has outlawed electronic cigarettes as federal lawmakers dawdle on setting age limits for puffing tobacco vapors.

The battery-powered, nicotine-packed gadgets are increasingly popular with children and teens and virtually unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. E-cigarettes aren’t a problem for Onalaska sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, but officials hope tweaking the school’s handbook will help with prevention, middle school Principal Jed Kees said.

Kees introduced a policy at Monday’s Onalaska Board of Education meeting banning e-cigarettes at the middle school. The change came as Kees and other officials reviewed updates to student handbooks for the 2014-15 school year.

“I think students have a good idea that tobacco is not allowed here and other substances,” Kees said. “Once kids tend to learn … there’s no age restriction on e-cigarettes, it’s a different thing.”

The middle school’s e-cigarettes policy is modeled after a similar policy at the high school, which banned the otherwise-unregulated tobacco products in May.

Now, students at the middle school will also be forbidden from using “all chemicals and substances which release toxic vapors or gases used for the purpose of giving off fumes, vapors or gases to produce a mood altering affect,” according to the new policy. Officials added the ban on e-cigarettes to the student handbook section on illegal substances.

The rate of high school and middle school students who have used vaporous tobacco products doubled from 2011 to 2012, according to the National Youth Tobacco Survey. The percentage of middle school students who reported having "vaped" tobacco in the past increased from 1.4 percent to 2.7 percent. The same survey showed that roughly three-quarters of middle school or high school e-cig smokers also smoked cigarettes.

The FDA regulates cigarettes and smokeless tobacco, and agency officials have proposed extending their oversight to include e-cigarettes. The health impacts of using the vaporizers are unknown, according to the FDA, but the agency has received reports of e-cigarettes being linked to pneumonia, disorientation, seizures and heart failure.

Younger students don’t realize how addicting e-cigarettes can be, Kees said.

“They’re still inhaling or imbibing some of that nicotine,” Kees said.

The e-cigarette ban was rolled out with a series of handbook tweaks and grammatical corrections made Monday in preparation for the upcoming school year. District officials also reviewed changes to handbooks used at Eagle Bluff, Irving Pertzsch and Northern Hills elementary schools.

Student handbooks for Irving Pertzsch and Northern Hills added language regarding upcoming construction as the schools prepare for major renovations. Voters passed a $16 million referendum in February to pay for the upgrades.

Groundbreakings are slated for September at both schools, though officials have yet to set a date to begin both projects.

Pick-up and drop-off locations at Irving Pertzsch will be moved during construction, according to the school’s new handbook entry.

Work at Northern Hills will be more extensive, with plans calling for a second story, a new entrance and other additions. Classrooms could move throughout the year as work is completed, according to handbook changes introduced Monday.

Handbooks for both schools contain promises from school officials to keep parents up-to-date with any construction-related news.

“We’ll be communicating those changes as we kind of figure them out,” Irving Pertzsch Principal Todd Antony said.

In other news, school board members approved four grant applications, including two $500 grants for teachers at Northern Hills and Eagle Bluff. The grants are part of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Cooperating Teachers Mini-Grant program.

District officials also approved a request by administration to apply for a $21,360 grant from the state Department of Public Instruction to prepare for the roll-out of the new educator effectiveness program. The statewide initiative will mean sweeping changes to job reviews for K-12 teachers and principals.

School board members also signed off on a plan to team up with the Holmen and La Crosse school districts on an application for a $25,000 peer mentoring grant from the DPI, which would also help the district adjust to the new teacher evaluations.

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Randy Erickson covers arts and entertainment and county government for the La Crosse Tribune. Contact him at 608-791-8219 or randy.erickson@lee.net.

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