Taking a breath: Carmel Clay Schools combats student vaping through settlement funds, required education 


Carmel Clay Schools is among thousands of plaintiffs – including many school districts throughout the nation – to receive settlement funds from a lawsuit it joined in 2021 against Juul that accused the manufacturer of e-cigarettes of unethically marketing its products to minors and contributing to increased use and addiction among students.

The CCS school board approved a settlement agreement in March. CCS declined to reveal how many dollars it would receive, but officials said the funds will be used to address vaping in schools, which continues to be a concern.

Vaping peaked at Carmel High School in 2019, when school officials recorded 160 incidents. The pandemic likely led to the numbers dropping in 2020 and 2021 before climbing back up to 73 incidents in 2022. The statistics are believed to be undercounted, however, as vaping devices are often disguised to look like other items and can be used much more discreetly than cigarettes.

CHS Principal Tim Phares said he is hopeful the numbers will decline as students learn more about vaping and its effects. When vaping started to become problematic several years ago, Phares, principal of Creekside Middle School at the time, said students would often talk about how they believed vaping did not carry as many risks as cigarettes.

“They just didn’t understand the dangers behind it,” he said. “Now I think the kids understand.”

It’s a message Erica Strahm, youth coordinator for Breathe Easy Hamilton County, is working to spread to students in CCS and beyond. Through the Voice Hamilton County program, Strahm partners with local school districts and students to provide education about the impact of vaping, something she believes won’t be fully understood for years.

“It took approximately 150 years to prove how bad smoking is for you. With vaping, we’re just at the beginning of trying to figure out what it’s going to do to people and what the dangers are, and we’re already seeing some of them,” Strahm said. “There are people in the medical community and a lot of doctors who think vaping is actually going to be worse than smoking.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nicotine, which is found in most e-cigarettes, is highly addictive and can have negative effects on brain development, a process that can last through age 25 or so. Some e-cigarette ingredients are believed to cause long-term lung damage, and the liquid can be poisonous if swallowed or absorbed through the skin or eyes.

The Carmel City Council updated the city’s smoking ordinance in 2019 to prohibit vaping in most public spaces, which gave law enforcement the authority to write citations for students – and adults – caught vaping on school property. Officers have discretion, however, in how they handle each situation, and may offer offenders an opportunity to take an educational program about vaping rather than end up in city court.

CCS aims to educate all students in fifth through eighth grades about vaping through the Catch My Breath program, which has become part of the standard health curriculum. It’s also taught in high school health and interpersonal relationships classes.

In the fall, CCS plans to pilot movable detectors at secondary schools that sense chemicals released by vaping and alert school administrators and school resources officers by text or email when activated. The detectors won’t replace physical supervision, according to CCS officials, but they will help monitor areas where students tend to vape, such as bathrooms and locker rooms.

Learn more and discover resources regarding vaping at breatheeasyhamiltoncounty.com.

Reaching the county

To combat vaping in schools, several local organizations are partnering to share resources, ideas and information.

The Hamilton County Vape Free Schools Task Force includes members from the Hamilton County Health Dept., Breathe Easy Hamilton County/Voice Hamilton County, the Good Samaritan Network and representatives from every local school district. The group held its first meeting in January and plans to gather several times a year to address vaping as a regional issue.

Another countywide effort includes high schoolers speaking to junior high students about the dangers of vaping and how to avoid them. Breathe Easy Hamilton County has recruited high school students from Fishers and Noblesville and is looking to add students from Carmel to the team.

“Honestly, kids want to hear more from high schoolers than they want to hear from old people,” said Erica Strahm, youth coordinator for Breathe Easy Hamilton County.

Recently, the high school students visited Fishers Junior High to share personal anecdotes and present information on the topic.


  • 3.3 percent – Middle school students using e-cigarettes nationally
  • 14.1 percent – High school students using e-cigarettes nationally
  • 160 – Vaping incidents at Carmel Clay Schools in 2019
  • $15.7 million – Juul settlement amount in Indiana