Pickerington Local School District officials have ramped up the policy prohibiting vaping by students.

Possessing or using e-cigarettes or other devices for vaping now is a more serious offense for Pickerington junior high and high school students.

The school board has approved changes to its policy, which now states any student found in possession of the devices or using the devices on school grounds or at school-sponsored functions will be treated as having committed a drug offense.

Unless a student's parents can show within 24 hours of an offense via a drug test completed by a district-approved screening center that the student wasn't vaping an illegal drug, such as marijuana or a THC concentrate, that student will be suspended for 45 days and be required to enter and complete the district's substance abuse prevention and recovery program.

Students who prove they were vaping a nicotine-based product still would face three-day suspensions.

The board unanimously approved the policy Nov. 5, putting it in line with how the district already was handling similar offenses for its junior high and high school athletes.

"We're trying to get both policies consistent," said Keith Kristoff, Pickerington School Board president.

"We wanted to make sure there's a clean and standardized path to getting kids back into school."

According to the nonprofit Center On Addiction, vaping is the act of inhaling and exhaling the aerosol, often referred to as vapor, which is produced by an e-cigarette or similar device.

The center's website states that the term "vaping" is used because e-cigarettes do not produce tobacco smoke, but rather an aerosol, often mistaken for water vapor, that actually consists of fine particles.

Many of the particles contain varying amounts of toxic chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, as well as respiratory and heart disease, the center's website states. "Some people use these devices to vape THC, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's mind-altering effects, or even synthetic drugs like flakka, instead of nicotine," the website states.

According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, e-cigarette use among high school students rose from 1.5 percent in 2011, to 11.7 percent in 2017.

For middle school students, those numbers rose from 0.6 percent to 3.3 percent during the same time period, the survey stated.

The Center On Addiction said the JUUL, a device that resembles a computer USB flash drive, is the most popular form of vaping, accounting for 72 percent of the market share of vaping products in the U.S.

School district officials said they are seeing increased use of JUULs and other vaping devices among students both to inhale nicotine and marijuana products.

"Viewing possession and use of these devices as a drug violation has already been our practice for student athletes," said Bob Blackburn, assistant superintendent. "This is one part of our expanded efforts to counter the drug epidemic facing our country and our community.

"E-cigarettes, JUULs and vaporizers cannot only be used to ingest nicotine, but they also can be used by our students to smoke marijuana or its active ingredients."

School Board Vice President Michelle Waterhouse said the extension of the vaping policy was requested by junior high and high school principals.

"(Pickerington High School North Principal Mark) Ulbrich explained that we have already had several violations this year and in fact one student volunteered that he had obtained a cartridge of THC from Colorado and had it in his JUULing device at school," she said.

Board member Vanessa Niekamp said as a parent of a ninth-grader at Pickerington High School Central, she's heard from students that vaping is on the rise among the student body.

She said she is hopeful the new policy will act as a deterrent to vaping and to help educate parents and students about the potential dangers.

"I want to make sure that our kids understand the substances that are going into their bodies," Niekamp said.

"We're trying to make sure, even though we have to do that with penalties and policies from the school district, that we're making sure those kids are safe."