Schools finding cell-phone oversight challenging

Teens’ cell-phone use gets a flunking grade from many Middle Georgia school administrators who are trying to cope with an increasing number of the devices.

In Houston and Peach counties, the cell-phone policy is simple: Students may not use the phones during school hours. The devil’s in the details, though, on policy enforcement and consistency.

“Our cell-phone policy is basically you can have them, but not have them turned on,” said Jim O’Shields, the Peach County school system’s assistant superintendent. “We’re obligated to confiscate them if we find them.” Students can retrieve the phones after parents come by and pay a $30 fine, which goes to the school’s account.

“Our policy basically says that use or possession of cell phones and other electronic devices during the school day is not appropriate,” said Robin Hines, assistant superintendent for operations at Houston County.

Both systems agree a policy is needed regardless of the ever-increasing number of the devices used by students. And trying to stay one step ahead of them can be time consuming.

“We’re trying to play catch-up with our students,” said Susan Clark, the Peach County superintendent. “We don’t understand technology like these kids do. They’re digital natives while we’re digital immigrants.”

In Bibb County, students may bring cell phones to after-school activities to call their parents, but they cannot have cell phones with them during school hours. If phones ring or make noise during the school day, they are confiscated, and there’s a $25 return fee.

Besides disrupting classes, cell phones can be used for more inappropriate purposes, Hines said.

“We have had instances of ‘sexting,’ or pornographic materials being sent to students via a cell phone,” he said. “There’s also the issue of cheating, of taking a picture of an answer document to a test. It happens. And, the regular disruption of a class by a cell phone ringing, or by students texting each other.”

The issue of cheating is pretty high up in the minds of school district officials, followed by pornography and cyber-bullying.

“We’re not naive to the fact that there are so many students with cell phones, but that in itself doesn’t diminish its negative aspects,” Hines said. “For instance, one time this past year we had a safety drill at a school and did not give prior warning to staff or students. At the central office we started getting phone calls from parents who had been called by the students at the school. It was only a drill. But the use of the phones by students in that instance was inappropriate.”

Administrators work to reassure parents that they’re not cut off from their children.

“We try to educate the parents about the policy,” said Paige Busbee, principal at Mossy Creek Middle School in Kathleen.

Many parents have told her “they’re just telephones,” she said, but many cell phones today have cameras and access to the Web.

“If students want to call parents and tell them where and when to pick them up after school, we have no problem with that,” Busbee said. “Internet access is the really big issue here, and it’s almost impossible to stop that. We try to get the community to understand it’s more than a phone.”

“We don’t want to be the cell-phone cops; parents want that connection with their children these days and we want them to stay in touch,” O’Shields said.

Busbee said that after some school events, teachers will go up to students and ask if they need to use a cell phone to call their parents to pick them up.

“We reassure parents the students will have access to a telephone if they need one,” she said.

The Internet problem isn’t quite understood by young teens, she added.

“I told one girl last year that an inappropriate picture of her, once it gets out, is on the Web for a very long time. Someone down the line can Google search her name, such as a potential employer, and a youthful indiscretion can come back to haunt you,” she said. “The kids don’t really grasp that, the long-term consequences of their actions. And there are predators out there.”

“As a parent, I’m very concerned about my kids’ cell phone use,” Hines said. “I check the calls, the texts, the sites they’ve visited. All parents should be doing this as a safety measure.”

Maybe on down the road cell phones or similar electronic devices will be utilized in the learning process, but today’s educators say now is not the time.

“Cell-phone use in some professions is critical, but that’s the business world, not the classroom. A big difference,” Hines said.

“We’re in the business of teaching students how to learn. They have to learn to learn, when all is said and done. We want them to be lifelong learners, and with technology that’s a survival technique.”

The situation is similar to what schools went through about 25 years ago with the introduction of the personal computer, O’Shields said. “At first very few students had one at home, and even today some are economically not able to have either a cell phone or a computer,” he said, “but many, many are very familiar with the devices.”

Hines said the system’s policy will evolve, just as the technology evolves, “but what we do have at the moment is working.”

To contact writer Jake Jacobs, call 923-6199, extension 305.