The Other 60 Percent

Health officials wary of dissolvable tobacco

Health officials are manning the school ramparts for a fresh tobacco assault they feel sure is about to happen, if it hasn’t started already.

Colorado is a test market for RJ Reynolds new line of dissolvable tobacco products.

They just can’t prove it.

It was May when the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco company introduced its new “dissolvable” products into Colorado as a test market. Those products include Camel Orbs, pellets roughly the size of breath minds; Camel sticks, twisted sticks the size of a toothpick; and Camel strips, similar to breath strips. All are made from finely ground menthol-flavored tobacco and are designed to melt in the mouth.

Tobacco is tobacco, even if it is smokeless, and it’s illegal for vendors to sell the products to minors.

It’s also a violation of the state’s Tobacco-Free Schools Act for students to bring these items onto their campuses. Indeed, as far as state officials know, no Colorado student has yet been caught sneaking a tobacco orb, strip or stick into his or her mouth at school.

But health officials feel it’s just a matter of time, given the allure of the product.

“They only started testing this product in Colorado a few months ago. We haven’t had time to track its usage,” said Bob Doyle, executive director of the Colorado Tobacco Education and Prevention Alliance, a statewide coalition of organizations committed to reducing tobacco use. “But we’re trying to get ahead of this before it happens.”

State Board of Health wants product out of Colorado

Last month, the Colorado Board of Health unanimously approved a resolution calling on RJ Reynolds to stop the test marketing of the candy-like products in the state until the federal Food and Drug Administration decides whether to regulate them or not. The FDA will report to Congress next March the results of its study of the health effects of dissolvable tobacco.

The health board also called on officials from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to alert school officials, parents and young people to the threat posed by the new tobacco products.

Since then, Cherry Creek and Aurora school board members have seen presentations on dissolvable tobacco during the public comment section of their meetings, and information about dissolvables has gone out to health staff and teachers in Steamboat Springs.

In addition, information about dissolvables will be included in the November issue of Thrive, a parent newsletter for Boulder Valley schools.

This is just the beginning, say health officials.

“We can’t say what the timeline might be at this point until we sit down with Department of Education folks,” said Stephanie Walton, Youth Tobacco Specialist in the Prevention Services Division of CDPHE. “Right now, I’m not sure how aware school districts even are about these things.”

Officials struggle to track incidents in schools

Meanwhile, Doyle is urging all schools to provide fact sheets about dissolvable tobacco to staff and parents, and to monitor whether the products have appeared on their campuses. If so, he’d like to know.

“Please pass the information on to me so we can keep track,” he said.

He’s also encouraging parents to sign an online petition calling for the end of the test marketing of these products in Colorado, and he’s asking school boards and other organizations across the state to draft similar resolutions.

Camel sticks, strips and orbs look like candy or breath strip packages. Photo from Tobacco-Free Aurora

Despite the lack of hard evidence that teens are using products that makers say are clearly meant for adults, health officials point to some troubling circumstantial evidence:

There’s brand loyalty, for one thing.

“We have research that shows that youth smokers are very brand loyal,” Walton said. “We know that Camel is one of the most popular brands with teen smokers, so anything marketed under the Camel brand will appeal to young people. We have a study that shows established youth smokers are most likely to smoke the same brand as the first cigarette they tried. So if they’ve tried a Camel, they may be more likely to try these products.”

There’s also the sneakiness factor. These are products that can easily be brought into a classroom, and just as easily be mistaken for mints. And unlike other forms of smokeless tobacco, they won’t have to spit it out afterward.

“I could have 10 of these orbs in my mouth at once, and you wouldn’t know it,” said Doyle. “I could be getting a very large dose of nicotine and you wouldn’t even know it. This really facilitates addiction.”

Flavor and price are two more teen-friendly aspects of the dissolvables. Their mint flavoring makes them more attractive to youngsters. And at a cost of about $2.50 per pack, the price fits more easily into teen-age budgets than a $5 pack of cigarettes.

“Youth are price-sensitive tobacco users, so this is an easier entry point for them,” Walton said.

Finally, there’s product placement. Two other dissolvable tobacco products – Stonewall and Ariva – have been on the market for some time without much furor. That’s because Stonewall is typically sold in tobacco stores, while Ariva is more likely to be sold in drug stores, next to nicotine replacement products.

“But we’re finding Camel Orbs in convenience stores and gas stations, stores where you typically see cigarettes sold,” Walton said.

Makers defend product as intended for adults

Despite all this, tobacco-product manufacturers point out that the products really do fill a niche, that they provide adults with tobacco options that don’t involve second-hand smoke or cigarette butts, that they carry the same warnings as other tobacco products, and that it’s the opponents who repeatedly refer to these products as “candy” who are really causing the problem.

And, as Thomas A. Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, told members of the board of health at an August hearing, the vast majority of tobacco vendors refuse to sell their products to minors.

“From Aug. 30, 2010 to June 20, 2011, 99 percent of 989 Colorado retailers successfully refused the sale of tobacco products in compliance checks conducted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment,” Briant said. “Only nine out of 989 retailers received a warning letter from the FDA alleging a sale of tobacco products to a minor, and even some of these nine locations were not retail stores.”

Across the state, the rate of smoking among teens has steadily fallen in the last decade. According to the most recent data, the 2008 Healthy Kids Colorado Tobacco and Health Survey, 37 percent of teens reported ever having smoked, down from 54 percent in 2001.

“The trendline is going down, though the decrease has slowed,” Walton said.

The data on smokeless tobacco is less clear. Figures on that form of tobacco use aren’t even available before 2006. According to the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, roughly 17.7 percent of high school students in Colorado identified themselves as smokers, versus 16.8 percent who used smokeless or spit tobacco. Nearly all of the spit tobacco users were, not surprising, male.

The new dissolvable tobacco products aren’t like to gross out girls the way spit tobacco does, health officials predict.

at odds

Westminster’s model part of dispute with federal investigators in education of students learning English

Teacher Amy Adams walks around her classroom checking on students working independently on math at Flynn Elementary School in Westminster. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Westminster schools may have failed to identify scores of students needing help learning English, and also neglected to effectively teach many of those students, according to a federal investigation. Those are among the findings in newly released documents behind the school district’s agreement to boost services for English learners.

The 9,400-student district signed a settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice in February, which outlines changes the district must make.

Despite the district’s agreement, Westminster Public Schools officials dispute the investigation’s findings.

“We still maintain that we were not out of compliance with the law,” said James Duffy, the district’s chief operating officer. But he said in the interest of students, “instead of continuing to argue and waste resources going back and forth, we are going to meet the agreement.”

Many of the disagreements center on how Westminster places and advances students based on proficiency rather than age, which is known as competency-based learning.

The district’s model also has put it at odds with the state. Last year, the district argued that Colorado’s accountability system unfairly flagged Westminster’s district for low performance, in part because some students were tested by the state on material they hadn’t yet been exposed to.

Below is a breakdown of the major ways the government believes Westminster schools were violating the law in serving English learners, the way the district argues they weren’t, and some next steps.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools has not identified all students that need English language services.

District officials said they had already identified problems in their process before the Department of Justice pointed them out, and were in the process of changing their system.

When a student enrolls in school, most districts require parents to fill out a home language survey that asks the language the students speaks and the language spoken in the home. The problem, in part, was that Westminster officials, years ago, were not testing students whose home language was something other than English, so long as parents had noted that their child did speak English.

“Based on experience with other states and school districts…this practice frequently results in the under-identification of ELs,” the justice department wrote.

This year, state numbers show Westminster has identified 38 percent of its 9,400 students, or 3,615, as English learners.

Officials said they have been using a new form, and said students are now tested for English proficiency when parents identify a primary language in the home that is not English. Teachers also can flag a student for testing and services.

The settlement agreement also requires the district to identify long-term English learners who have been enrolled in American schools for more than five years without making progress toward fluency.

Officials said they have identified 730 long-term English learners in the district. Parents of those students will soon receive letters asking if they are interested in sending their children to school this summer for a program to help those students make more progress.

  • Finding: Westminster Public Schools is not providing adequate services for students that need English language development.

According to the Department of Justice findings, most students in the district aren’t getting help to learn the language.

“Our site visits and review of data revealed that the type of language assistance services (English learners) receive varies widely, depending on which school they attend,” the department states. And when students are getting instruction to learn English, they aren’t always getting it from a teacher who is trained and certified to do so, they found.

Westminster schools use what they call an “interventionist framework” that combines specialists who have Colorado’s Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement, as well as other specialists, including special education teachers, to form a team of “interventionists” that all work with lagging students. That team works by going into classrooms throughout the day.

It’s a system that, in part, helps maximize the number of teachers working with students when the district doesn’t have enough of one kind, but it also can target which kind of help a student needs, Duffy said.

“We look at the need of our students and not the broad brush labels,” Duffy said. “They are getting services from a number of people. This is a program that has been recognized.”

But the district only tests students in English, meaning some students may not get an appropriate education.

When the district is trying to figure out what class levels to place a new student in, they test them for math and English using tests in English, so if a student can’t understand the test, they may not be able to demonstrate their ability to read or to do math and end up placed in classes below their ability.

District officials say that once in classrooms, teachers look at data closely and can determine if a student has been placed incorrectly just because of a language barrier. Teachers also have some flexibility in how they ask students to show they’ve learned a standard so they can move to another level.

“It’s just an initial placement,” Duffy said. “They are approaching this from a very traditional model. It’s not in alignment with our system.”

As part of the settlement agreement, however, the district must develop new procedures for testing and placing students, including “assessing ELL’s literacy and math levels in Spanish where appropriate and available.”

  • Finding: The district does not have enough staff for its English language learners and does not provide teachers with enough training to help students in their classes.

District officials admit they cannot hire enough trained staff to work with all students, but point out that it’s not a problem unique to their district.

According to district-provided numbers from December, 83 district staff have a Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education endorsement. The February settlement agreement asks the district to increase the number of teachers with the endorsement.

To recruit these highly-sought after teachers, Westminster officials have gone to national job fairs and have provided signing bonuses for hard-to-staff positions, including for teachers with this credential. Going abroad to recruit foreign teachers has not been something Westminster can afford, Duffy said, but the district would hire qualified foreign teachers if they applied.

Westminster also provides out-of-state teachers with a stipend for moving expenses but runs into the high cost of living in Colorado.

“It’s scaring a lot of people away,” Duffy said.

One other incentive Westminster and many other districts offer is a tuition subsidy for teachers interested in earning the endorsement.

The Department of Justice also will require Westminster to develop new and additional training for district teachers who don’t have the credential, so they can better teach language learners.

The district is going to work with the University of Colorado Denver to provide that training. Duffy said officials submitted their teacher training plan to the Department of Justice, and are awaiting approval.



On track

This bill could help Colorado foster youth keep their school – and graduate – even when home changes

When she was a little girl, Gloria Mendez would dream of walking across a stage in a cap and gown to receive her high school diploma.

But when she went into foster care at the age of 15, already a mother herself, that dream got further and further out of reach. She was placed in a home in Greeley, separated from her brother and more than hour away from her school in Aurora. She changed homes and schools frequently. Each time, the credits and classes required to graduate changed.

“I was like, ‘OK, two or three more classes. Not a big deal.’ But then they move you again,” she said. “I needed two more credits, and I got to Denver, and they told me I needed three more years. I was already 18.”

At that point, she said, social workers and school counselors began to pressure her to get a GED instead. She told them: “I don’t want a GED. I want my high school diploma.”

Mendez is hardly alone: Youth in foster care in Colorado graduate from high school at a rate that’s abysmal — and falling, unlike the graduation rates of students from other vulnerable groups. Last year, just 23.6 percent of youth in foster care graduated on time, down 10 points since 2016. The statewide graduation rate is 81 percent.

People who work in child welfare have taken notice, convening a group that included teens in foster care to brainstorm ways to preserve schools as places of stability for children whose families are in crisis.

Now, lawmakers are moving toward putting some of those ideas into practice. A bill that passed a key committee this week aims to help students in foster care graduate on time by allowing more of them to stay in their home school and by providing flexibility around graduation requirements, regardless of where they’re enrolled.

The bill would require county child welfare officials and schools to work out transportation plans so that children can stay in their home schools when they go into foster care. It would make funding available to counties to work out solutions that make sense in their area, whether that’s contracting with ride-share services or paying mileage to foster parents or creating shuttle routes.

When children can’t stay in their home school, the bill would allow them to enroll immediately in a new school, without waiting for immunization records or academic records to transfer.

The bill would also allow districts to waive certain requirements or create alternative ways to meet requirements so that youth in foster care aren’t penalized for changing schools.

The bill is part of a package of legislation to address problems with the foster system, including providing foster parents with more information about the children in their care and extending services beyond the age of 18 for more people. That package represents Colorado’s effort to comply with 2016 federal rules requiring states to take additional steps to keep children in their home schools and to pay for transportation when necessary.

Those rules, part of the federal education law, didn’t come with new money, and it’s unclear whether Colorado will step up to fund the transportation requirements. The bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, asked for $2.9 million in the state budget, but members of the Joint Budget Committee declined to include that money in their budget proposal. They said they were open to adding it in later if the bill passes, and state child welfare officials said they’ll look for other funding if they need to.

After the bill passes the Democratic-controlled House, it goes to the Republican-controlled Senate.

For now, the state’s 6,600 youth in foster care continue to rack up experiences that set them back in school. While students who are removed from their homes usually see their academic performance even out after a few months, their growth is often slower than other students who aren’t dealing with the trauma of instability, according to Kristin Melton, youth services manager in the state’s Division of Child Welfare

“If you are in a low-interest rate saving account and everyone else is in the stock market, you will never catch up and you will fall further and further behind,” Melton said.

Sister Michael Delores Allegri has been a foster parent to more than 70 children over 20 years. She said it’s often a challenge to even get kids enrolled in school in a timely manner.

“Even if you miss two weeks of high school, you’ve missed a lot,” she said. And then curriculum often doesn’t line up, or they can’t participate in sports or drama or whatever activity was their lifesaver in their home school.

“They lose their high school life, and because of that, they don’t engage,” she said. “We put obstacles in the kid’s way.”

The ability to earn a diploma can be incredibly meaningful to those who persevere, she said.

“Those kids who graduate from high school have that sense about themselves that nothing can stop them,” she said. “It’s all of our responsibility as adults to reach out and tell the kids, ‘I know you can do it, and I’m going to help you.’ It’s not that they don’t want to do it. They just get so discouraged.”

Mendez said she was embarrassed at times to be legally an adult and still in the foster system, still in high school – but she did eventually get her high school diploma. She “stumbled into” the Emily Griffith Technical College and met with a counselor who, for the first time in her high school career, really listened to what she wanted for herself.

The Emily Griffith school in downtown Denver offers GED courses along with a wide range of technical and vocational programs for adult students, and it also offers a standard high school track for adult students.

Mendez graduated in 2015, three years later than she would have if her academic career had stayed on track, and walking across the stage was every bit the accomplishment she dreamed of.

“It felt like, I proved you wrong,” she said. “No matter how many times you doubted me or pushed me to get a GED, finally being able to graduate and walk across that stage and having your high school diploma … all my hard efforts paid off.”

Kristina Smith, now 20, did manage to graduate on time, despite spending most of high school in a group home, but she said transportation help would have transformed her school experience. She had to walk 45 minutes to school and 45 minutes back every day, regardless of weather. All those hours spent walking, in the cold, in the dark, in the snow, and in the rain, often made her want to give up and made her feel like no one cared if she succeeded or failed – or even if she was safe.

She returned to her home school and her family during her senior year. At first she was excited, but the academics were a lot more challenging. She had to stop doing sports, which she had loved, to make it to graduation. Things shouldn’t have been that hard, she said.

Smith said she wants policy makers to know: “There are not that many things holding these kids back that can’t be fixed.”