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  • Springfield News-Leader

    Springfield school board backs limits on student cellphone use, consistent enforcement

    By Claudette Riley, Springfield News-Leader,


    At the Springfield school board meeting Tuesday, no one argued against placing limits on student cellphone use — especially during learning time.

    Questions arose, however, about how much access students should have to devices at school, how existing rules can be enforced consistently and whether a separate cellphone policy is needed.

    Concerns about student cellphone use have repeatedly surfaced in board discussions during the past year, mostly as part of larger conversations about improving behavior and reducing distractions.

    Board member Kelly Byrne requested a standalone discussion about cellphones during the June 11 meeting.

    "This topic has been a longtime coming," he said Tuesday, kicking off what became an hour-long conversation.

    Byrne noted the 2023-24 student handbook, which was printed and sent to each family, spelled out the rule. It stated: "Cellphones at school should be stored in backpacks for before/after school use only unless directed otherwise by staff."

    "We have in our student handbook a very clear — it's not a policy, it's a rule — that cellphones are not allowed," he said. "But that's not what is happening in our buildings ... There is a lot of difference from one building to another, some more, some less."

    Byrne pushed for the creation of a board policy. He said some middle and high schools have "a really good handle on it" while others do not.

    "Cellphones are out in the classrooms, they're out in the hallways, they're out in free time," he said.

    He pushed for the creation of a board policy and provided examples of potential policies from the Missouri School Boards' Association. If created, he said details of how to enforce the policy would be left up to the superintendent and her leadership team.

    "We have a problem if it's in the handbook that they're not allowed yet we still see them everywhere. That needs to be addressed," he said.

    In recent years, a limited but growing number of districts in Missouri and across the U.S. have taken steps to limit student cellphone use during the school day.

    'We have a lot of misuse of cellphones'

    Restrictions placed on cellphones in other districts include when, where and how students can use them. Some require that they remain in lockers and backpacks during the day while others use technology, such as locking pouches or carts, in classrooms. In rare cases, they are banned completely.

    Board member Steve Makoski said he is interested in exploring the use of cellphone pouches, which keep devices locked up in the classroom, in some if not all schools.

    "My position is that we have a lot of misuse of cellphones within the school system, causing kids embarrassing moments, distracting them within the classroom, creating issues that become disciplinary problems," he said.

    Board vice president Judy Brunner said the pouches are not a bad idea.

    "I've seen that implemented in classrooms effectively," said Brunner, a former teacher and principal. "There is some liability in terms of theft quite frankly to see where those are put to make sure kids get the correct cellphone as they are exiting the door."

    She noted the handbook outlines consequences for students who engage in inappropriate cellphone use but if that becomes a disciplinary issue, there are other steps that can be taken.

    "I do think our handbook needs to align with whatever the practice is, if we can make that clear. It's the best to be consistent but it's not easy to be consistent," she said.

    Brunner asked how far the restrictions ought to go and if smartwatches and similar devices will be included.

    "Anything that comes down to being so restricted that you can't have (a cellphone) on campus at all, I think that is ludicrous. In the year 2024, that is not practical and that would be a complete nightmare to enforce," she said.

    "Let's trust the people that we have, let's get a policy or a handbook (entry) that is reasonable, that gives people some discretion, and then make sure that the teachers know what is expected of them."

    'Choosing the battle to fight'

    Board member Shurita Thomas-Tate advocated for a level of autonomy so school leaders can figure out what works best for their students.

    "We have to allow for different principals and teachers to manage their classrooms and their buildings in ways that work for them," she said.

    She said SPS is not a "one-size-fits-all" district.

    "I get really concerned about creating policy that locks us in and it does take away some autonomy from teachers," she said.

    Board member Susan Provance, a retired Springfield teacher and coach, said restricting access to cellphones may prompt pushback from parents who want to be able to contact their children.

    "I believe in choosing the battle to fight that you can win," she said.

    Board member Maryam Mohammadkhani said the role of the board is to set expectations in the best interests of the students.

    "Our children are suffering from a lot of anxiety and mental health issues and part of that, a very significant part of that, is because they are tethered to their parents. They don't have an opportunity to play. They don't problem-solve anymore," she said. "And I think this idea that the cellphone provides them safety is an absolute fallacy ... Our schools are extremely safe."

    She said there are other ways parents can get in touch with students, including email or calling the school.

    Setting consistent expectations about cellphone use across the district may also benefit teachers and principals, she said.

    "This is a ... tangible, palpable way to indeed support our teachers and help them with classroom management," she said.

    Parents and guardians could be an ally in helping the schools curb cellphone use, said board president Danielle Kincaid.

    "Please don't text and call your student unless it's an emergency during the school day, wait until they're going to lunch, waiting until after school," she said. "And tell them put their devices away when they're in the classroom, like their teacher has asked."

    Lathan outlines options for next year

    At the end of the discussion, after all members weighed in, there appeared to be consensus that more clarity about expectations and consistency of enforcement were needed.

    "We all agree at the board table that cellphones are disruptive and destructive if inappropriately used, also acknowledging parents have different options about whether or not their students should have cellphones and at what age they should get a cellphone," Kincaid said.

    She said the district can determine what is appropriate for students during the school day. Kincaid said she prefers to outline expectations in the handbook instead of a policy.

    "There should be a districtwide emphasis on a reduction of the use of cellphones and then putting cellphones away during instructive time," she said. "And I think the board has reflected that this evening and that is what the board expects to see."

    Superintendent Grenita Lathan listened to the discussion but did not speak until the end of the meeting, during a time set aside for her update.

    She said the administration will likely ask each school principal to submit a procedure outlining cellphone limitations as part of their back-to-school plan.

    Lathan said she is also interested in highlighting and expanding the rules for cellphone use in the revised handbook for next year.

    She said the administration is also interested in placing "high visibility" signs regarding cellphone limitations on the walls in schools,

    "We'll make sure that that is clearly posted," she said.

    What Springfield's student handbook says about cellphones

    The 2023-24 student handbook for Springfield Public Schools outlined the rules regarding inappropriate cellphone use in schools.

    "The use of an electronic communication device such as a cell phone, or a similar device, is prohibited during the school day.

    "This policy will be violated if the device is turned on or used during the school day, unless authorized by a site-specific procedure.

    "The 'use' of a device will occur if the device is in the 'on' position and/or if voice, text, photo or video messaging takes place during the school day. The District is not responsible for lost, damaged or stolen devices."

    For a first or second offense, across grade spans, punishment is a conference or detention. For a third offense or higher, it is detention and up to one day of in-school suspension.

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