As usual, I am going to focus this blog on one major topic and then provide a series of short updates with clear headings afterward. The topic I am selecting to focus this blog post on is one that has become more and more important in schools across the state of Maine, Gorham included. It is the topic of the increasing problems associated with vaping among our youth. If you have read recent headlines and thought that Gorham isn't experiencing vaping as an issue, that is simply not the case. Granted, the issue in our schools is not as prevalent as it may be in other schools but that doesn't mean the issue isn't here and it also doesn't mean that makes this issue any less important to focus on.
If through sharing information and being vigilant on this topic together as parent and school communities, we can prevent just one young person from taking up this nasty habit, I believe our efforts are worth it.
In a recent article from the Bangor Daily News, the newspaper cites data from the state's most recent (2019) Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey (MIYHS) that shows that 28.7% of high school students used e-cigarettes (also known as vaping) in Maine within a 30 day period last spring. This data is up from the 2018 data which showed only 15.3% of Maine's high school students had self-reported vaping within the last 30 days. The number of high school students across the state who have tried vaping also increased significantly from 33% in 2017 to 45% in 2019. Similar trends are seen at the middle school levels across the state and right here in Gorham. You can view the complete article by CLICKING HERE.
What is causing a certain "allure" for our teenagers towards vaping is that there is a strong perception among teens that vaping is "harmless". That e-cigarettes are just flavored water vapor and that there are no harmful or addictive substances in e-cigarettes like there are in regular cigarettes with nicotine, tar, and the other myriad of chemicals we are all too familiar with in traditional smoking. The bottom line is that our children seem to think that vaping is safe. The facts, however, demonstrate very clearly that this perception couldn't be further from the truth. Here are just a few of those facts:
* Most (95%) E-cigarettes contain nicotine. Nicotine is harmful to the developing brains of adolescents whose brains continue to develop well into their early 20's. Nicotine can negatively impact memory and concentration. Finally, Nicotine is also addictive so once a teen begins vaping, it is hard to stop.
* Vaping increases exposure to harmful chemicals. The specific chemical makeup of e-cigarettes varies greatly and there is little to no oversight to ensure harmful chemicals are not contained within the vapors themselves. Random testing of e-cigarettes has found heavy metals in the vapor ranging from nickel to tin and even lead. The long term effects of vaping on the human body are not known.
* Many e-cigarettes use Diacetyl as a flavoring chemical in their products. Diacetyl is a chemical linked to serious lung disease.
* Recent research has shown that adolescent vaping acts as a "gateway" to smoking of tobacco and drugs.
So how did vaping come about and where did this message of harmlessness come from? E-cigarettes were initially created for current smokers as an alternative to smoking by "Big Tobacco" companies who were losing money as we became more clear about just how dangerous tobacco is. When a smoker moves from smoking tobacco-based cigarettes which contain more than 599 deadly chemicals to e-cigarettes, there is clearly a benefit. But this benefit is only for those that are already smoking. That doesn't mean e-cigarettes are safe, they are simply less deadly than cigarettes, but somehow this message of harmlessness has gotten out and is most prevalent among teens. Many people believe that companies who make e-cigarettes are specifically marketing to teens to send this message. "Here's a cool way to smoke that doesn't harm you like tobacco does." This is simply false and a message that many believe is being spread to make a profit on the backs of our unsuspecting teenagers. Did you know that Altria, the company that owns Marlborough, is the largest investor in JUUL, the largest manufacturer of e-cigarettes? HMMMM.
So what are we doing in our schools to try and combat this false message of harmlessness? Our policies forbid the use of e-cigarettes in any school facility, on school grounds, on school buses or during school-sponsored functions. We are using time during advisory periods for all GMS and GHS students to talk about vaping with our professional staff. We are using time during our health classes at GMS and GHS to talk about and inform children on this important topic. Our social workers and school substance counselors are working hand in hand with our school resource officers to talk with students at our elementary schools on this important topic and to work with individual students or small groups of students who may be having direct problems with vaping in grades 6-8.
Overall, we are working hard to educate our students about the harms associated with vaping, but WE NEED YOUR HELP! We need parents, all parents, to also have these difficult conversations with children. Below are just a few resources that parents might find helpful in talking with their children and in learning more about the harms of e-cigarettes and vaping:
These resources are just starting places for an ongoing conversation that we all need to have with our children regarding these very harmful products. Please know the schools will continue to do what we can to help educate and we welcome any feedback or suggestions you may have to support this ongoing conversation. Also, please know we are here to support you having these conversations with children, so please reach out if you have questions. Thank you.
Now it is time to go into other updates that I hope you will find useful. I have used headings below to hopefully aid in your ability to skim materials so you read what you are interested in and can skip information you may not be interested in. As always, if you have any specific questions I can help with, please let me know.
Communication Procedures If a School Bus Is Involved in An Accident While Students Are On Board:
This topic came up recently when we had one school bus bump into another school bus a week or so before the Holiday break. This minor accident occurred on an afternoon run between two buses. One bus had no students on it while the other bus had 15 students on it. This was a minor accident and there were no injuries even though the news reported it literally as "Two Buses in Gorham Collide This Evening". A slight overstatement for sure, but this is our media nowadays so to be expected I suppose. Since this minor accident occurred, I thought it would be a good idea to remind parents about what our communication protocols are in these types of cases, whether the accident is as minor as this one, or not as minor.
First, whenever there is an accident involving a bus the driver is trained to make sure students are safe first. This may entail an evacuation of the bus, or not, depending upon the severity of the accident. While a driver is ensuring the safety of students, they are trained to make their first call to 911 to alert police and other first responders to the scene. This can be done either via radio, or phone, whichever is most available at the time for the driver. Bus drivers practice these kinds of emergency drills with students at least once, but often twice during the beginning of each school year. Once the police have been notified, the driver continues to ensure student safety and works to ensure an accurate count of all students who were on the bus at the time of the accident.
Once the police arrive on the scene, they take over. The driver provides the police with the names of each student on the bus and the police at that time determine next steps as to how to address any potential injuries, etc. The police often take the time while right there to interview the driver to find out what occurred. This first part can sometimes take some time. The primary concern of the driver and of first responders at this point in the response process is to ensure everyone's safety. It is not to communicate with families, at least not yet.
At some point (as determined by either the driver or the police or both) once everyone's safety has been verified, the driver or the police will reach out to the transportation office dispatch to let them know what has occurred. The bus driver will call the transportation dispatch and provide the accurate names of all students who were on the bus at the time of the accident. Once the transportation office has this information, they then begin to reach out to each school to contact families and let them know what has happened. If the accident occurs beyond the time that coverage may be at the schools, the transportation office has access to contact information themselves and will make contact with families directly as needed. The bottom line is that any family of a student involved in an accident, even a minor one, will be contacted directly by either the school or the transportation office. This is important to note because if you are a family who has not been contacted, this likely means your child was not on the bus when the accident occurred or was on an entirely different bus. If at any time a parent has any questions about the safety of their child on a Gorham bus, please call your school's office or if after 4:00 please call the transportation office directly.
While this initial push to communicate with families is occurring, the transportation office is also reaching out to my office to apprise me of the situation. Based on the information given at that time, we would then make a determination as to whether to broaden the communication or not. If the accident is minor then we would likely only call those families whose students were directly involved to let them know. If the accident were more serious, we would likely send a message out to all parents to apprise folks of the situation and to let parents know how to get more detailed information.
Based upon the earlier outline of initial responses, it can take some time for these phone calls to go out to parents. This is not because we don't care about communicating with our families. We do. It is just that we concentrate first on making sure those involved in the accident (big or small) are safe. Once the safety of students is verified, then communication with families becomes the next priority. Depending upon the circumstances, this communication with families could happen relatively quickly (within 10-15 minutes) or it could take a little longer.
Of course, with today's communications, the reality is that a student on whatever bus is involved is likely already on the phone with their parents letting them know what is going on way before 10-15 minutes. This is good, and in fact, is encouraged. Just know that official school communications can take a little longer than that, but ultimately it will occur and when it does questions can be asked and answered at that time.
I will share with you that after our last minor bus accident (by the way we typically have between 5-8 minor bus accidents per year, not all of which involve students on the bus) we are once again, reviewing our communication protocols to see what we can do to speed things up for families who are rightly concerned about the safety of their children. Just know that as we review and tighten these protocols up as much as we can - our primary focus is on that very thing as well - keeping your children safe each and every day!
K-5 Attendance Zone Changes for 2020-21
The K-5 Principals and I have been working diligently to determine necessary staffing changes associated with our K-5 attendance zone shifts. This is not as easy a task as it may sound, mostly because in order to do this we have to do a full projection of enrollments across each school for the 2020-21 school year in order to determine the total number of classrooms we will need at each building on top of knowing how many classrooms will be added to Narragansett as a result of the attendance zone shifts.
This work, at least in its first draft, has almost been completed and we are now ready to begin to share this information with staff during the next several weeks for their input and feedback before finalizing draft assignments for 2020-2021. I had originally wanted to get information out to parents about staffing assignments by the end of January, but because we feel it is so very, very important to have an appropriate amount of time to share our initial thinking with staff and to gather their input and feedback to inform final decisions, it will be the middle of February before I can release this information to parents. Also, keep in mind that even once this initial listing is released to parents, nothing is final until the FY 21 budget is final. Therefore, when staffing assignments are announced publically in February, they will still be subject to change.
Before we announce this draft staffing list for 2020-21 we will be ready to release a calendar of planned transition activities for K-5 parents/guardians. We will likely announce these activities by mid to late January 2020 so please be looking for those details in my next blog post.
Dunk and Discuss Events
My "Dunk and Discuss" events are intended to create small, informal settings where parents or community members can meet with me to discuss any topics that they would like related to the Gorham Schools. The last few times I have scheduled these series, I have gotten some feedback from parents saying that early morning is not the best time to schedule them due to parents needing to get kids ready for school and/or leave for work. Therefore, I am purposefully scheduling this series of "Dunk and Discuss" meetings in the early evening in hopes I can catch folks on their way home from work and hopefully before the mad rush for most to make dinner. I hope these times work better for at least some folks. Here are the dates I have planned:
* Tuesday, Jan. 21 from 4:30 - 5:30 p.m. at Aroma Joe's in Gorham.
* Thursday, Jan. 23 from 4:30 - 5:30 p.m. at Aroma Joe's in Gorham.
* Monday, Jan. 27 from 4:30 - 5:30 p.m. at Aroma Joe's in Gorham.
I will likely plan another series of "Dunk and Discuss" talks in March as well. Again, these are times where I plant myself at Aroma Joe's for an hour to talk "school shop" with anyone interested on any topic of interest to you, so feel free to stop by and enjoy a cup of evening coffee (possibly decaf) and get a chance to share your thoughts with me or get your questions answered.
K-12 Lunch Balances
We have updated our procedures for the collection of outstanding balances on school lunch accounts. These new procedures end with sending names of families who owe more than $125.00 to a collections agency. I will outline the new procedure below and then you can feel free to call our school nutrition office if you have questions. This new procedure is in effect beginning January 1, 2020.
The following steps will be taken to collect unpaid school lunch balances in Gorham:
Step 1: Each school's cafeteria manager (K-8) will send home weekly low balance letters when a student's meal account is negative. Students in grades 9-12 are expected to be able to track their own balances.
Step 2: An automated message will be generated (telephone and/or email), notifying the parent/guardian when the student's balance reaches a negative $10.00. This message will go out weekly for all families K-12.
Step 3: Principals/Assistant Principals will mail low balance letters home when the student's meal account reaches a negative $25.00.
Step 4: A New automated message will be generated notifying parent/guardian when a student's balance reaches a negative $25.00.
Step 5: Principals/Assistant Principals will call parent/guardian when the student's meal account reaches a negative $50.00.
Step 6: Food Service Director will call parent/guardian when the student's meal account reaches a negative $125.00. A phone call will be followed up by a letter home stating that the account is being sent to debt collection if not resolved within 2 weeks.
Step 7: If the Food Service Director's call/letter goes unanswered and the balance is not paid within two weeks, the balance will be sent to a collections agency.
Please know that payment to meal accounts can be made at the school or through our online payment system. Paypams is free, convenient, and can be set up to automatically deduct money when the student's meal account gets low. Please contact the School Nutrition Office at 207-222-1375 or email email@example.com to learn about our Paypams system or to learn about our Free and Reduced Lunch Program. WE ARE HERE TO HELP!
Well, that's enough information for today...You can stay on top of all the "happenings" in Gorham by going to our website (www.gorhamschools.org) or by following us on Twitter or Facebook. As always, if you have ANY questions, please don't hesitate to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.