TTYL, I’m at School

For the 2018-19 school year, the Oyster River Middle School made the decision to ban cell phones from classes, halls, and lunch from the first bell in the morning, to the last bell of the day. The decision was largely in response to a push from the school board and parents of middle school students to ban phones from the middle school. The transition was made easier as the school went “one to one” at the same time, meaning that every student was issued a laptop and eliminated the necessity of phones as an educational tool.

In past years, teachers have individually decided how to deal with cell phones in the classroom, much like the current policy at the high school. The school didn’t want to ban them largely because they were a potential educational tool, as students would be able to use them for research and in class activities when they didn’t have access to a computer. However, with each student having their own computer, they always have access to the internet and no longer had any need for phones. Now, phones must stay turned off and in students’ lockers throughout the day. As students are now unable to contact their parents during the school day, the front office has two new phones for that purpose. For the most part, teachers and administrators have been pleasantly surprised with the success of the new system; students have expressed mixed feelings.

Julia Kinsey, an eighth grader at the middle school, was the first student to have her phone taken away with the new policy. She explained, “I thought that if I just made a quick call to my mom in the hallway during the last fifteen minutes of school, that would be fine.” She expressed surprise that she was the first, saying, “before [the new policy], everyone used their phones […] They were out at lunch time, and we would be allowed to use them in class for research purposes.”

Kinsey explained that students were spending all of their spare time on their phones and before she had a phone, she felt left out. She explained, “at the lunch table all of my friends would be on phones, listening to music and stuff; no one talked. And now that there are no phones, people are playing at recess again and everyone’s talking, which I like.” Despite all of the positive outcomes, Kinsey said, “ I don’t know how I feel about the rule as a whole.”

The initiative to ban phones came from a number of parents on the school board. Middle school principal, Jay Richard, said that he believes one of their motivations for advocating for a new policy was concern of the health risks associated with screen time.

Richard elaborated on another potential motive for the ban, saying, “I think some parents felt that phones were extremely distracting to kids, and I mean, it can be. The biggest thing was that we didn’t have enough electronic devices for kids to use at school for learning.” Now, the new computers ensure that every student has the ability to access the internet whenever they need. The new one to one system will be covered in greater detail in issue three of Mouth of the River.

He said, “where at first I was very adamant [that banning phones was a bad idea], it bothered me that these parents wanted these phones banned and they were taking out the choice of families and teachers who wanted to allow phones in the classroom.”

He changed his opinion after the success of the year, saying, “looking back on it now, it’s all worked out very well. It hasn’t been a big deal because kids have their own laptops. So there’s no argument anymore why we need to allow kids to have phones in the classroom, because they don’t need them anymore for learning purposes.”

Jon Bromley, an ORHS science teacher and parent of a middle school student, was one of the parents who talked to the school board about the need for a new phone policy last May. Bromley explained that parents brought attention to the issue because the old policy was outdated. He said, “when that was written, the technology landscape was totally different.”

Bromley explained that the technology has evolved too much for the old policy, saying, “no one predicted that a person’s cell phone would have the computing power it does, let alone all the apps and social media that come with it. The internet landscape is the wild west.” Bromley argued that because there was so much to the internet that couldn’t be monitored, phones were becoming an issue at the middle school.

He was concerned about the school’s inability to monitor because of, “all the places [the internet] literally can take you that are not healthy for anybody, let alone young minds.” He supported the school’s decision to ban phones, saying, “where it landed was, I think, the right move.”

Additionally, Bromley expressed that he has had no difficulty communicating with his daughter at the middle school.

However, because students now have to go to the office to call their parents, Kinsey explained “I’ve noticed a lot more that there are more kids in the office now, in the lobby, more kids waiting for the telephones. I remember one time, I was standing there for like ten minutes as a bunch of other kids ahead of me did their calls.”

Similarly, eighth grader Sonia Barth-Malone expressed that communication wasn’t always as easy as it seemed with the new system. “The teachers in the classrooms, they can’t even give permission to text your parents,” she said.

Barth-Malone found this especially frustrating because, “if you can’t remember somebody’s phone number, you can’t get permission from your teachers to check your phone.” Because of the strict policy, she was unable to communicate with someone to find out whether she had an appointment after school.

Valerie Wolfson, a seventh grade social studies teacher, gave her thoughts on the new policy. “I feel like it’s been successful, and I think the vast majority of kids get it. There were a few kids who would beg me, ‘please can I take it out in the last five minutes,’ and we’d just have to say no. But they finally understand we’re actually going to stick with that policy,” she said.

Overall, Wolfson hadn’t noticed a huge issue with phones in the past, saying, “there were small infractions here and there […] Usually it wasn’t a huge deal, but occasionally it was.” Additionally, she noted the success of the policy and her surprise that students adjusted so quickly.

Cathy Dawson, a special education teacher at the middle school who works in seventh and eighth grade classrooms, explained that she thought it was beneficial, “because they’re not distracted. They’re not trying to sneak their phones.”

Dawson also said, “there’s been no push back from the kids; they’ve all been pretty much respectful, maybe I’ve taken two phones. I feel like they are more focused, especially because they have the computers.” Additionally, she found that students are more organized when they’re forced to make plans before school or use the phones in the office at school.

Despite the overwhelming support from the middle school faculty, Wolfson pointed out that the  exception that allows for students with an IEP, a 504 plan, or an alternate medical plan to use their phone may give these students some unwanted attention. Students who have a medical condition could use their phone as a part of their plan, which was established with the school nurse. In the case of a student with diabetes, they would use the phone to track their blood sugar.

Although Wolfson supports the rule, she worries that it may put students in an awkward position. Wolfson stated, “my feeling is, if that were my child and they had to explain to their peers constantly why they were allowed to have a phone, it sort of breaches their privacy because that would make them very much an outlier, so I wonder how that’s gonna play out over time.”

With all eyes on the middle school, Suzanne Filippone, the principal at the high school, explained that the high school hasn’t talked about changing the phone policy, and is unlikely to change its policy. “We have not had a discussion about implementing that at the high school. The discussions around cell phones are more about appropriate use and talking to kids about how to monitor their use and to make sure it’s not interfering with the learning environment, but not necessarily having a bell to bell policy.”

Filippone explained, “I think it’s appropriate for middle school. I can see why they made the determination they did for middle school, I don’t know if that determination is appropriate for high school.”

Derek Cangello, a social studies teacher at the high school, decided that in order to limit phone usage during instructional time, he would dock a point from a student’s quarter grade every time he sees them with their phone out during instructional time. Despite his strict in class policy, Cangello explained that he would likely be against a phone policy like the one at the middle school being implemented at the high school. He stated, “I think we’re supposed to be preparing [students] for the adult world.” He explained, “self control and paying attention and doing what you’re told and stuff like that, I think, is a life skill.”

While addressing why he believed the policy was right for middle school but not high school, Cangello stated, “I think in high school you have a lot more responsibility […] and I think we as teachers should be able to police that and, I think, hold students accountable to not using their phones.”