“At this time, we are looking for answers and seeking information. However, the longer this goes, the more dangerous the situation becomes — this is life threatening.”

Those were the words of Madison School Resource Officer Tim Armstrong in a news release from Madison Consolidated Schools Monday, after nine students were transported to King’s Daughters’ Hospital last week when they showed symptoms of elevated heart rate, dilated pupils, fluctuated breathing patterns, limpness or in some cases, a loss of consciousness. Evidence of vaping, including pods and cartridges, has been confirmed in every incident.

“In some cases, the students who were transported were treated because they were not breathing, their hearts had stopped beating — this is a very dangerous, potentially deadly situation,” Armstrong said. “Should this situation turn fatal, someone will be held responsible — and it will be a very different discussion.”

According to the MCS news release, the ninth MCHS student confirmed Friday was showing similar symptoms for the second time that week. After further review of the cases, it was determined that at least one other student was transported three times with similar symptoms within a matter of days, the school corporation said.

“Sadly, at the end of the day, this comes down to choices these students are making,” said Superintendent Jeff Studebaker. “These kids are choosing to vape, they are choosing to add chemicals to an already dangerous substance, and some are making the repeated same poor choice within a matter of days.”

State police set up a mobile lab on school grounds Friday and found three chemical substances consistent in the pieces of evidence analyzed, the school district said. MCS will release the names of the chemicals once testing is finished at the State Department of Toxicology and a report is made available by ISP.

School resource officers are also looking for a common thread of shared or separate devices and a common source or a location from where the substances were bought. Madison said SROs (school resource officers) are “tracking down leads from reports of supplies coming from China via the internet directly to homes and/or being purchased locally illegally by minors or by legal aged adults and given to minors.”

Investigators noticed that a few pieces of evidence had a mixture of all three chemicals combined, whereas others may have contained a trace of one or two of the chemical additives. SRO and School Safety Coordinator Jacob McVey noted that the the more chemicals found in the samples, the more severe the reactions and symptoms in students have been.

“We have been lucky up to this point,” McVey said. “In some cases these kids have been on the verge of needing life-saving measures by emergency medical personnel.”

Youth vaping is a problem at Madison and nationwide. The 2019 National Youth Tobacco Survey found that 27.5% of high schoolers and 10.5% of middle schoolers used e-cigarettes. The last Indiana Youth Tobacco Survey, published in 2018, found vaping had risen 14.7% among high schoolers since 2012 and 4.3% among middle schoolers across the state.

Jefferson County Prosecutor David Sutter said his office has received more than 40 cases of underage vaping from Madison SROs since the beginning of the school year.

“The rise in the use of vaping devices among minors has presented new and dangerous challenges due to the combination of chemicals involved. My office is committed to working with school officials to strictly enforce laws concerning the use and sale of tobacco and electronic cigarettes to minors. The health and safety risks are too high and I hope this will be a wake-up call to youth who are choosing to engage in this dangerous behavior,” Sutter said in the release. “As this continues to be investigated, I will be working closely with school leaders and I will also seek to work with the State Legislature on additional ways to address vaping devices in schools.”

Madison employs a five-tiered discipline system when dealing with students who are caught with vapes or other banned substances like cigarettes and alcohol, starting with a written apology, talk with school counselor or detention and ending with long-term suspension, expulsion or referral to alternative education. Students may be referred to the juvenile court if caught, per school policy.

“Our goal and intent is to keep our students on campus and in class ­— that is our job,” Studebaker said. “Our feeling is if we suspend or expel every student we discipline for use of these types of products, we are failing them not only academically, but providing an easier path for use of these dangerous devices, as well as, possibly other activities that are not healthy.”