Credit: Em Espey

Vape detectors will be installed in five high schools as part of an updated safety plan announced Wednesday by Montgomery County Public School officials. The plan also includes installing new security cameras, increasing staffing and creating new student badges. High schoolers say they’re encouraged by the increased attention on student safety, but dubious about the effectiveness of the measures.

MCPS spokesperson Jessica Baxter said the measures are being taken to combat “dangerous trends in access to illicit substances by our youth” and an “increase in hate and violent incidents.”

“There are several measures currently up for consideration,” Baxter wrote to MoCo360. “Schools are working with their staff and security personnel to regularly check on restrooms to discourage inappropriate behavior. We are adding security staff and looking at ways to utilize more staff members to improve safety.”

Superintendent Monifa McKnight hinted at the anticipated safety updates in her community message welcoming students back from spring break on April 10.

According to MCPS, the new safety measures include:

  • Piloting the installation of vape detectors in bathrooms at five high schools
  • Implementing student badges to help staff easily identify students versus unwanted visitors
  • Creating a new collaborative group of MCPS staff, students, parents and partners called the Well-Being and School Safety Advisory Team
  • Providing all community engagement officers (CEOs) and police partners with key fobs to their assigned schools
  • Establishing weekly safety meetings with security personnel
  • Holding four scheduled staff training sessions on emergency preparedness before semester’s end
  • Revamping the reporting process for hate bias incidents, including a new form and mandatory parent conference for identified offenders
  • Installing hardware to keep high school bathroom doors open
  • Allocating one permanent substitute teacher to all high schools to address staff shortages
  • Adding a full complement of security cameras to all elementary schools in four phases

Baxter said the vape detectors are a new initiative being tested and that the five schools selected to pilot it will be notified in the coming days.


“I think it is important to note that the schools selected are a good distribution across the county and have had incidents over this past school year,” she told MoCo360.

She added that final costs have yet to be determined and that selected vendors will be leasing or donating devices for school use.

“The detectors are sensors meant to detect smoke or vape fumes within a specific area,” she wrote. “Once detected, the device sends a message by text or email to designated staff members to alert them.”


A large part of the plan is dedicated to combatting what some call “bathroom culture,” hallmarked by illicit drug and alcohol use in campus bathrooms. At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, bathroom culture has been the subject of heightened community discussion following an incident in January where two female students were found unconscious and intoxicated in a school bathroom. The school has taken to locking bathrooms at random times of the school day to discourage loitering and drug use, according to students.

After reviewing the plan, B-CC junior Ellie Watkins noted that vape detectors would be a more beneficial alternative to locking bathrooms, though said she’s unsure how the detectors would be able to discourage other drug usage.

“I just think they’re not prioritizing what the bathroom is really for,” Watkins said. “One of my friends had her period, and she had to walk to the other side of the school just to put in a tampon. This type of stuff is so much less beneficial than they think it’s going to be.”


B-CC’s Parent-Teacher-Student Association president Lyric Winik said she’s encouraged by how seriously the district is evaluating its safety measures to combat the recent rise in violence and hate bias incidents, but she said she’s not sure how clearly the district has communicated these anticipated updates to staff and students.

“I feel like they put this out for parent and media consumption, but in terms of school messaging, that’s been somewhat opaque,” she said. “It’s got to get to staff and students more than anybody else. That’s one of my big concerns about this, is how they’re going to make sure everybody is aligned about the process for doing these things.”

She said she anticipates the district having even more challenges with drug use on school campus once marijuana becomes legal for recreational use in Maryland, anticipated to happen this summer.


“How is positive behavior highlighted and held up as an example? That’s the one piece that I just don’t feel is dominating this discussion,” she said. “We can’t just punish our way and discipline our way and monitor our way out of this situation. We have to look at creating a better climate and culture overall.”

Adding more security personnel to schools may make students more nervous and on edge, according to a senior at Montgomery Blair High School who requested anonymity  for privacy reasons.

“Increasing patrolling of schools isn’t necessarily going to have the effect the administration hopes it’s going to have, especially in down-county schools with more low-income students,” he said. “It always makes kids more nervous. I don’t think it’s the best idea.”


He said Montgomery Blair recently held an assembly to raise awareness about drug use, and the parent of a student who overdosed was invited to speak.

“By the time the mother began speaking, everyone went silent. You could sense the atmosphere in the room shift,” he said.

He said he believes more sensitive, empathetic community dialogue around drug use and its consequences could lead to better outcomes in schools than increased patrolling and penalization.


Clay Walsh is a senior at B-CC and editor in chief for the school paper, The Tattler. He said he’s perplexed by the idea that the MCPS will expect every student to wear an identifying badge on campus and said he doesn’t see the new protocol being “compatible with high school students.”

“For me, it just sounds a little Orwellian to have students wear badges while they’re on campus to differentiate them from other members of the community,” he said.

Walsh expressed wariness about the new security measures being tested and said he thinks the district needs to focus more on mental health support instead of adding new rules and restrictions.


“Really the question is, when are they going to stop trying to penalize students and focus on offering those people support?” he said. “Drugs are an addiction, not just an offense to the school.”

Baxter said the district is “actively exploring” safety improvements in response to recent trends in drug use and hate bias incidents. Many of the security updates highlighted in Wednesday’s release are being rolled out in phases over the coming months, she said.