A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Johnson Co. Middle School JuulBreakers display courage as they challenge e-cigarette epidemic

By Ron Daley
Special to KyForward

Johnson County Middle School students exemplify the grit needed to be the leaders Theodore Roosevelt called for in his “Man in the Arena” speech he delivered on April 23, 1910 at the Sorbonne in Paris, France.

This past year the students challenged their peers, schools, parents and the Kentucky General Assembly to tackle the growing epidemic of use of the popular brand of e-cigarettes “Juuls.”

Middle schooler Kaylee Gibbs expressed the thoughts of her team, “This project has been a very amazing thing to be a part of. Throughout our project, we have faced many emotions. We have been harassed on the internet, made fun of by our peers, but we have had many joyous moments too. Being a part of the JuulBreakers has taught to always do the right thing even if other people disagree with me. We are all so proud of what we have accomplished and the impact that we have made on individuals.

Johnson County middle school students and supporters: (L-R) Pam Burton, Cole Butcher, Hannah Piedad, Laken Salyers, Constance Martin, Chloe Dyer, Dakota Shepherd, Emily Farler, Alivia Hackworth, and Brenda Dyer (Photo from KVEC)

The inspiring words of Roosevelt captured the courage of these young students. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”.

The students gained much publicity and were honored for working all year to educate their peers, Kentucky school officials and legislators about the dangers of youth vaping, as well as the group’s proposed state law Senate Bill 218 which passed the Kentucky Senate but was not brought to the House floor. However, little attention has been given to the emotions the students have had to endure.

Sponsor Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard praised the work of the students explaining the bill was a collaboration between him and a group of Johnson County Middle School students. “I think it speaks volumes that these young people in eastern Kentucky really want to be involved in shaping what’s going on in their school,” Smith said. “For any of you following the national news, this has become a big issue of late.”

The bill, also called “the vaping bill,” would have established an anonymous reporting system for students to report vaping, require that parents be notified if their child was caught vaping and direct students to free vaping cessation programs. Another provision would encourage school boards to provide awareness programs to teachers and students on the dangers of vaping. Eight of students testified on behalf of SB 218 before the Senate Health and Welfare Committee. 

Sen. Stephen Meredith who chaired the committee which took the students testimony praised the students. “They did a phenomenal job with their presentation. They were articulate. They had done their homework. They did great research.”

We can see exactly what goes on in class or outside the classroom by our fellow student and it is worse than teachers and parents can imagine, states student Hannah Piedad.

“As soon as the teacher goes out of the room, you see kids pop out their Juuls,” said Constance Martin, 13, of the tiny e-cigarettes designed to look like flash drives or other common objects.

She said it’s even worse in school bathrooms where students “hot box,” or keep “hitting the JUUL over and over” to ingest a large dose of nicotine.

As part of their research, the students have measured the nicotine levels in students to better inform them about its danger. Their research has shown very high second hand “Juul” smoke levels.

The student’s work has caused them to lose friendships. Because of their local social media and awareness campaign, they are called “snitches” and harassed when they report vaping back home. When invited to speak at another school they were “called stupid” and students blew the e-smoke into their faces.

The students showed devices used by students to secretly smoke Juuls at school and shared their experiences to the 23-member school superintendents at the June Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) board meeting.

“I am so proud of the behavior, grit, and determination exhibited by this group of kids,” said Johnson County Schools Superintendent Thom Cochran told his fellow superintendents. “This problem is much more evasive and severe than may know.”

“The students have gotten a lot of heartache, but have endured because they believe so strongly,” Johnson teacher and group sponsor Pam Burton told the superintendents. “The testimonies these students gave are true testaments to their courage, but their resiliency . . . is what makes them truly remarkable,” Burton said in nominating the students. “Even with the verbal attacks and at times ridicule from their peers, these students have remained resolute in fighting this battle” stated Burton in her nomination for them to be honored for the Kentucky Healthy Champions Award.

One of the students explained that “kids think it is cool and they taunt us and follow our work on social media.”

The students also advocated for the successful tobacco-free schools bill, HB11, which passed in the General Assembly and was signed into law by Governor Matt Bevin.

Juul Breakers Hannah Piedad and Dakota Shepherd described the advocacy as being ” stressful and nerve-racking along the way…It’s been hard work, but it’s been exciting too” vowing to continue their work.

Ron Daley is the strategic partner lead for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), a consortium of 22 school districts. He lives in Lexington

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