Time to hang up cellphones in schools, again?

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COEUR d’ALENE — School trustees in Coeur d’Alene are going to take a long, hard look at the school district’s policy for cellphone use by high school students. Again.

Trustee Dave Eubanks made a plea during Monday’s school board meeting for the five-member panel to consider doing away with the district’s current policy — created three years ago — that allows high school students to bring their own devices to school to be used with their teachers’ permission for specific education purposes.

“Especially since three years later, as an unintended consequence of this policy to improve education, we now have a cellphone problem in too many of our schools that I believe is actually undermining education,” Eubanks said.

He said that since the start of the school year in September he has heard from at least 30 different teachers who say cellphone use by students is “crazy.”

“Student use of cellphones is at the root of a whole new array of distractions and disruptions both in class and in the halls — promoting rumors, and sometimes even to a degree, panic...” Eubanks said.

Cellphone use is interfering with the development of positive social skills in young people, he said.

Students have been known, Eubanks said, to use cellphones to purposefully provoke teachers to anger, and then film the teachers’ reactions and post the videos on social media to shame the teachers.

Cellphones are being used to share obscene images and worse, Eubanks said.

“I believe time has come to bring this problem to an end. I think it’s time for some common sense,” he said, and reminded the board members they are compelled to ensure the most positive teaching and learning environment exists in every one of the district’s classrooms and schools.

Board member Tom Hearn said he, too, has heard complaints about the use of cellphones in the schools, but he is not convinced the problem is with the policy.

“Maybe the policy we have now has not been adequately enforced,” Hearn said.

The policy says students in kindergarten to fifth grade are allowed to bring cellphones to school but the devices must be powered off unless they’re being used for a specific educational purpose under a teacher’s permission, Hearn said, but the policy does not call for high school students to power off cellphones.

“I think that’s the problem,” Hearn said.

Hearn said he has heard from a few teachers, including some from Lake City High School during last month’s period of heightened security at the school.

“They were saying, ‘It sure is nice that kids are actually talking to each other. They’re not looking at their cellphones all the time. They are interacting with each other,’” Hearn said.

Cellphone use was banned on the Lake City campus for a period of time in October as school officials and police officers investigated a rash of social media threats made toward students and staff at the school. The threats were found to have been shared on social media by three Lake City students who have since been expelled from the school district.

Hearn said the current policy does say personal electronic devices are not to be used to intimidate others, take photos of teachers, exchange information which is considered cheating, and they can’t be used in restrooms or locker rooms.

“Those are all good things...I think the problem is, we made the mistake of allowing students to have the cellphones on all the time. I think it should be turned off in class unless the teacher tells you to turn it on for specific reasons,” Hearn said.

Back in August 2008, a prior Coeur d’Alene school board voted unanimously to ban cellphone usage by district students from the time a student stepped inside a school until the final bell of the day. Students were allowed to have their phones with them, but they were not allowed to power them on, not even during breaks or lunch.

The policy called for teachers and administrators to confiscate the devices from students who broke the rule.

Administrators proposed the ban in 2008 to crack down on many of the same issues that appear to be occurring now: cheating, bullying and classroom distractions.

Lake City High Principal Deanne Clifford told The Press two years later, in 2010, that she saw a marked decrease in cellphone related issues — theft, cheating, bullying and porn — after cellphone use was banned. Clifford estimated at that time that the no cellphone policy had reduced associated disciplinary action by roughly 80 percent.

The policy banning cellphone use was later relaxed when the new policy was put into effect allowing high school students — with their teachers’ permission — to bring their own devices to school to be used for specific educational purposes.

“We did this because our district didn’t have enough devices of its own to go around, and because we felt that granting such leeway to students would enhance their learning,” Eubanks said.

And it did, but the policy was designed, Eubanks said, with “specific guidelines and limitations which in hindsight, were apparently not specific enough.”

Since then, the school district has spent “a boatload” of money to buy devices so the ratio of devices to students is now about 1 to 1, he said.

Board chair Casey Morrisroe said he would like the district to survey students, staff and others about the issue.

Morrisroe said some parents of children with health conditions want their children to be able to text them if they need assistance.

He noted the existing policy states students are not allowed to access the internet through their own data plans.

“That’s a difficult thing to enforce,” Morrisroe said.

Interim Superintendent Stan Olson said the administration would draft a review process — with surveys, sessions with staff, students and the community, and an exploration of different practices in place elsewhere — to guide the district in deciding whether to change the existing policy or go in another direction.

“...I think this is a hot topic now, coming off our previous experience, but it’s one that’s not going to go away...It’s worthy of a conversation. It’s worthy of a process,” Olson said.

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