ST CHARLES, Mo. — Their colorful, cleanly designed packages lined store shelves, but too often school leaders around the country were finding Juul e-cigarettes in the hands of their underage students.

Hancock Place School District recently started handing out in-school suspension with vaping awareness programs for students caught in the act.

Now, Francis Howell school administrators are taking their fight against one of the most recognizable names in vaping, Juul, to court.

"It has really become an issue that Francis Howell did not create, but they are having to deal with it on a daily basis," the school district's attorney, Cindy Ormsby said.

Ormsby says the Francis Howell lawsuit is part of a nation-wide legal strategy — a mass torte — against the tobacco company. 

"Each school district has its own damages, has its own lawsuit, but the claims are the same," Ormsby explained.

The lawsuit said Juul took tips from the old tobacco playbook when advertising to kids, addicting them quickly with nicotine pods the same strength as two packs of cigarettes.

"I haven't seen anything like this," Ormsby said. "I have been practicing at school law for over 20 years. I have never seen anything explode like this issue has, to where so many school districts are dealing with it on such a high level in such a short period of time."

Francis Howell administrators couldn't comment on the pending litigation, but the lawsuit includes staggering numbers from the past five years.

In the 2015-2016 school year, the district reported 54 tobacco-related infractions. The number hovered around 59 the following school year.

But then the numbers surged the next two school years to 270 (2017-2018) and 248 (2018-2019) infractions, and officials say the issue is expected to get even more severe this time around.

Francis Howell Central High School's had the highest number of tobacco-related infractions last school year: 80. 

But the problems even reached the youngest students. The district reported tobacco-related infractions at Harvest Ridge and Fairmount Elementary Schools.

Ormsby said it is tough to know how much rising popularity of vaping has -- and will -- cost the school district. But they want to bring in an expert to total up the costs, and they will pass the bill on to Juul.

Ormbsy said the district's exploring the option of purchasing nicotine cessation patches through MD Anderson to help students quit the habit.

5 On Your Side reached out to Juul for a comment, but we had not received a response by airtime. In August, the company announced new measures to cut back on underage use.

Contact reporter Sara Machi on Facebook and Twitter.

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