by Carrie Steinweg
LANSING, Ill. (January 2018) – A decade ago, before smart phones were in the hands of most Americans, schools had strict policies on cell phone use. While cell phones were common, those phones weren’t as sophisticated as today’s models—they were flip phones or models with early slide keyboards and limited capabilities. If someone was found using one in class, they were likely texting—the 2000s equivalent of passing a note. The phone was taken away. A parent was called. A detention may have been issued. If you had a cell phone at school, the general rule was that it should not be seen during school hours.
Fast forward a few years and at most high schools—and some junior high or middle schools—the majority of students are carrying smart phones with internet access. A Pew Research Center technology overview in 2015 stated that “fully 88% of American teens ages 13 to 17 have or have access to a mobile phone of some kind.”
Cell phones have also become much more prevalent in elementary schools. According to the National Consumer League, a 2012 survey showed that 56 percent of kids 8 to 12 had cell phones. However, the scope of use varies greatly by age group. In the age 8–12 “tweener” group, parents purchased the phones primarily for safety and monitoring after-school activities. In teens, phones are used much more for internet use and social communication with peers.
New tools, new rules
As cell phones have progressed, schools have modified their stance on phone use and technology’s place in education. It’s happened nationally and locally.
At Thornton Fractional High School, phone use is now permitted in common areas, including hallways and the cafeteria, said Principal Jacob Gourley.
“Within the classrooms, the default is ‘phones away;’ however, teachers have discretion to say ‘phones okay’ if they are being used as part of learning,” said Gourley. “I recall visiting a senior English class that was in the middle of a unit on Othello, and the students were reading the Shakespearean text on their phones, citing line numbers in the course of a class discussion.” Gourley said that other teachers have found the Plicker platform (plickers.com) to be a great way to engage students.
Some teachers in middle and high schools use online tools to allow students to track assignments, see future assignments, access make-up work or view classroom notes. Websites like PowerSchool were originally intended to give parents real-time access to student grades and assignments; now students can log in on a phone app to see exactly what their grade is in a specific subject.
With the increase of phone use in schools, disciplinary measures have shifted, at least at the high school level. “The rules have changed; it used to be if a phone was in use, the teacher gave the student a warning, and on the second offense, confiscated the phone, and the parent had to come to school to return the device,” said Gourley. “As more and more phones came into usage, with more and more applications, this policy soon became counterproductive for staff.”
In lower grades, the use of cellphones in school is still generally not allowed, but administrators realize the prevalence of devices and the potential for positive use in the classroom.
Heritage Middle School Principal Joe Kemp said that attitudes toward cell phones are changing. “We are transitioning, and teachers can let administration know if they have a lesson where they are doing an exercise using a cell phone,” said Kemp.
He said that they haven’t moved the direction of the high school in allowing phones at leisure in hallways. They do, however, have a time period before school where students can come into the library to use computers. “If there’s no computer available, they can have phones on at that time,” said Kemp. “But once school starts, phones should be powered off and in lockers.”
Teachers still have the option to confiscate phones if necessary. “It’s a situational thing, and they can send the student down to myself or the assistant principal. Generally, the teachers remind a student to put it away, and they do.”
“I think most kids in junior high have them now,” said Kemp. “I’m of the philosophy that if most kids are using them, how do we teach them how to use them properly for something constructive?”
District 158 includes a primary center, three elementary schools, and a junior high. The district has a policy that cell phones are not to be used at school and should be kept in lockers. “We’re a one to one district and have all the technology available to our kids, so there’s no need for them to use a phone,” said Superintendent Dr. Cecilia Heiberger. One on one technology means that each student is assigned a personal device—a laptop or tablet for their use while at school.
“We have all they need, and we have the filters in place so we can keep it safe,” said Heiberger. One big concern she said she had was that when a child brings a phone to school, it is unknown what can be accessed on the phone, especially if a child has a phone belonging to a parent or other adult. She said that there’s also the possibility of inappropriate use of a cell phone while in school. “I like the idea of letting us do the technology. You don’t know what is coming into the school if they use their own technology.”
For those parents concerned about being able to be in contact with their children, Heiberger said, “We’re still talking about young kids. They are never left unsupervised and if they need to get ahold of a parent, we can do that. It’s truly a distraction for young ones.”
With young children also comes the likelihood of a expensive device being broken or lost—so school policies indicate that the school is not responsible when a phone is lost, stolen or damaged.
According to Heiberger, they have had good success with students complying. When a cell phone is seen, it usually only takes a reminder from a teacher to put it away.
More information on disciplinary procedures for inappropriate cell phone use can be found in the District 158 Board of Education Policy Manual under section 7:190, which is available online at d158.net. The cell phone use policy can also be found on page 68 of the Student-Parent Handbook.