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School board updates cell phone policy

By June 6, 2017 No Comments

When I graduated from high school in 1993, a mobile phone was something that I had only seen in the cars of rich television characters like J. R. Ewing on the hit television series Dallas.  I did not have my first mobile phone until I was a student at Ouachita Baptist University.  It came in a bag about the size of a large textbook.  It plugged into the cigarette lighter, which back then was primarily used for the purpose the name suggests.  It was also so expensive to use (I think 50 cents per minute) that my Mother told me to only use it in emergencies.  When I took my first full-time teaching job in the Elaine School District, my phone was a flip phone, my minutes were limited each month, text messaging was something brand new, and the internet was something you got on when you were at a computer.

Times have certainly changed.  Phones are mini-computers capable of doing so much more than talking to someone else.  In fact, talking is such a small part of what we do on these devices that the phone companies, which hit me for big charges per minute when I exceeded my monthly package back then, give us unlimited talking today.  It’s our use of data that is our biggest concern when looking at phone packages.

This is important because schools must change as the technology available and the society using it changes around us.  Last week, this newspaper reported on the school board’s modifications to its cell phone policy, which represents a radical change from the traditional approach developed when cell phones were only used to talk and landlines still outnumbered mobile phones in this country.  That policy, which will expire June 30 with the end of summer school, prohibited students from being in the possession of cell phones during the school day.

This policy, which might have been appropriate 15 years ago, is no longer practical.  First, everyone has cell phones and we use them for more than just communication.  We use them to look up information in a way that we would have sought out an old fashioned encyclopedia 15 years ago.  Second, the nature of research has changed in such a way that the smartphone is like the desktop computer was for me in college.  It’s faster and more efficient than taking a group of students to a library once per week.  Our modern information age means it’s more effective and practical for a teacher to be able to say to a student, “Get out your phone and google the selected topic.”  Third, we live in an age of electronic communication where the expectation has become for almost instantaneous exchanges.  That expectation is true for students and their parents.  Preventing them from using these at all during the school day to check their messages and email is no longer a practical solution for this advanced age of technology.

Recognizing that our current cell phone policy wasn’t being followed by the vast majority of students at our high school and hearing from administrators that over 75% of our discipline referrals involved a violation of our current cell phone policy at some point, our school district knew we had to change.  After examining what was done in some other districts and convening the Handbook Committee consisting of a member of the board, parents, administrators, teachers and students, we decided to  modify the policy where teachers had the freedom to let students use these devices in the classroom for instruction-related purposes, students were allowed to use them for their own purposes at selected times such as lunch, and kids would no longer be suspended from school for a violation of a phone policy, which seemed to be diametrically opposed to our educational mission.

So the school board changed the policy to allow students to possess their cell phones on campus.  We will now allow teachers to tell students to get them out for specific instructional reasons.  We will let students make calls and return emails and texts at lunch.  We also protect student privacy by continuing to prohibit posting to social media during the instructional day and preventing pictures or video of someone without his or her permission.  Violations of the policy no longer involve suspension from school.  The phone will be confiscated and will remain in the custody of the school until a fine is paid, which will go into the school’s activity fund.  It is my hope that the new policy is followed and that a fine is never assessed.  If one is, the student will still be in class learning instead of at home as he or she would have been before.

I think this is a huge step forward with a policy that makes sense for the 21st century.  It gives everyone more freedom.  It should reduce the number of trivial discipline matters distracting principals from supervising instructional practices, and it should enhance the classroom experience for those students in the classroom with teachers who want to expand the use of technology in the classroom.  There are apps that can be used now for activities in all academic areas, and this will fill in the gaps where we still have not fully implemented our program to provide all students with a tablet like a Chromebook for instructional use.

In the 1960s, schools had rules that regulated the length of a male student’s hair or prevented female teachers from wearing pants.  Our world changed and those rules were recognized to be antiquated, unnecessary or counterproductive.  Football rules have changed as we have become more knowledgable about what practices were dangerous and which weren’t.  The same has to be true in the way we try to regulate the use of technology in the 21st century.  We no longer use pay phones, which some schools had for students to use on breaks.  Card catalogs on paper in large cabinets are no longer used in libraries.  No longer should we limit the use of these valuable pieces of technology by a total prohibition of their possession and use on campus.  This is just another progressive step on the part of our school district and is where the future on this issue lies.  It is my hope that our students, parents, and staff enthusiastically embrace this change and follow this new policy. 

Until next time, GO COUGARS!