CELL PHONES, SCHOOL POLICIES & CHILD SAFETY-1

School districts are taking a look at how to tackle the issue of cell phone use by students in the digital age.

SOUTHERN INDIANA — It doesn't take a scientist or professional pollster to notice that cell phones are omnipresent in today's society.

A few years ago, just over 70 percent of teens had access to a smartphone. In 2018, Pew Research Center found that figure had risen to a whopping 95 percent. The institute also found that nearly half of teens report being online almost constantly throughout the day.

Some studies have also shown that increased time on smartphones and social media can contribute to negative behavioral patterns, including unhappiness and suicidal ideation. Aside from the emotional impact of phones, it's safe to say that the risk for educational consequences also exist.

To combat the issue of students focusing on apps over assignments, schools are taking action. Policies, however, range widely throughout society, with some areas of the world choosing much stricter paths.

CRAFTING A PLAN

Last year, government officials in France voted in a law that banned cell phones in schools for all students in kindergarten through 9th grade. While the United States has no such sweeping rule, individual districts have crafted their own policies.

Even at the state level, Indiana has no official guidance.

"As far as I know there are no education statues about cell phones, and local districts set policies as they see fit," said Adam Baker, press secretary with the Indiana Department of Education.

How those districts have reacted, however, differs greatly, especially when it comes to age range.

At Greater Clark County Schools, there are limited rules preventing high school students from using cell phones. For younger students, rules are much more restrictive.

"High school students may use their cell phones before and after school, during their lunch break and in between classes, as long as they do not create a distraction or are disruptive to the educational environment," Erin Bojorquez, GCCS spokesperson, said. "Middle and elementary students may not use cell phones during the day unless approved by a teacher or administrator. They should just be powered off and stored out of sight."

OUT OF SIGHT, OUT OF MIND

For some, the "out of sight" policy seems to be the best option. The University of Chicago conducted research that found phones reduce cognitive capacity, even when they are turned off and faced down, suggesting their presence is a distraction in and of itself.

Because of such research and the possibility of distraction, Clarksville Middle School has also adopted policies that prevent cell phone use.

"We are a no cell phone building," principal Nikki Bullington said. "Students have to keep them put away during the school day. They cannot have them on them during the school day."

When the policy was first tried out a few years ago, Bullington said it didn't have much success. This time around, however, officials are finding much more cooperation with students, even if it takes some conditioning at first.

"A lot of teachers have assigned cell phone caddies," Bullington said. "It's away from the students, so they can't get on them. Middle schoolers really love their cell phones. Since we started this, we've had very few discipline incidents with cell phones. They're still trying to appropriately manage themselves on social media. While older kids may be able to use it more appropriately, middle schoolers do not. We've been very successful with that."

FINDING A BALANCE

Assistant superintendent Louis Jensen said New Albany-Floyd County schools aim for a more middle-of-the-road approach. The district hasn't beefed up its policy, but it is placing a heavier emphasis on balancing appropriate use of electronic devices. It isn't just limited to cell phones either, as the district also gives other devices to its students, like chromebooks.

"It's become of a point of emphasis to do more due diligence when we're not using technology in the classroom," Jensen said. "Teachers are basically developing plans that when we're not using technology, no phones are out. There are no policy changes, but that's what we're trying to do."

Jensen said there's no doubt that cell phone use has gone up in schools, but that's just a sign of the times in the digital age.

"We've seen an increase," Jensen said. "It's just the day and age. Kids are on phones and devices. We even give devices to them, too, so it's about balancing."

While Clarksville Middle School has taken a hardline approach against cell phones, some schools have embraced cell phones, when used properly. Among those schools is Community Montessori.

Director Barbara Fondren said when used appropriately, cell phones can actually complement the learning process.

"Our philosophy revolves around how we use them in the learning process and how we help self-regulate life," Fondren said. "It's a lot of work to welcome cell phones in our buildings. All the teams were there and had a voice in that process. People lose their jobs over this outside of school. We wanted to help young people rise to the occasion and learn that principle in school."

The electronics etiquette guide at the school allows students to use applications on their phones in a variety of ways, with the caveat that it must be approved by an advisor. Cell phones can also be confiscated and its contents inspected by an adult at any time.

WALKING THE WALK

Fondren said the district avoids a "do as I say, not as I do" mentality. Instead, adults also follow appropriate use guidelines.

"We work as a school to walk the walk," Fondren said. "We don't have double standards where the adults get to do what the kids don't. For example, you won't see adults drinking coffee in class unless the students are allowed. The same goes for cell phones. I think that's important. It may not be the same in all schools, but that's definitely part of our philosophy here."

At Clarksville, Bullington said staff and faculty similarly "walk the walk." In fact, they actually have new teacher meetings to discuss the use of technology. To ensure proper use, some teachers even use messaging apps that keep a record of communication between fellow teachers, students and parents.

"One thing we have to talk about is appropriate use of cell phones and social media," Bullington said. "Teachers use it the way they shouldn't sometimes. We do communicate between apps, because it keeps a record of all that's exchanged. Nowadays, it is a big push to appropriately use technology to communicate with parents and students. We just try to stay on top of it. They need to toe the line between their personal lives and professional lives."