Prince George’s considers lifting cellphone ban in county schools

A Prince George’s County school board committee agreed Wednesday night to recommend that the school system do away with rules that prohibit students from using cellphones during the school day, the strictest cellphone regulations in the Washington region.

School system staff members have been meeting privately for months, crafting a less-restrictive policy that recognizes the evolution of technology and the ways students use it. The new policy would allow for some cellphone use in school, provided it does not interfere with class work.

“We’re trying to change the policy in a way that reflects reality while also maintaining order,” said Demetria Tobias, the school system’s associate general counsel.

Tobias said the proposal would allow educators to encourage the use of technology instead of enforcing a “blanket prohibition.”

Under the proposal, cellphones would be permitted during the school day, based on grade level, for instructional purposes and at other times that are approved by school principals, provided that the devices do not interfere with learning.

“If a teacher wants to be able to use them in a lesson plan, they could do that,” said the school board’s vice chair, Carolyn M. Boston (District 6).

The current policy requires that cellphones be turned off and in a student’s locker during the school day. It allows phones to be confiscated until the end of the day if a student violates the policy one time. A second violation can lead to school officials confiscating the phone and requiring a parent or guardian to retrieve it. A third violation can lead to a student being prohibited from bringing a phone to school for the remainder of the school year.

Tobias said that times have changed since the board approved the cellphone ban in 2010.

“Four years ago, I didn’t even have a smartphone,” Tobias said. “Now middle school students and even some elementary school students have them on campus.”

Most school systems in the Washington region have flexible policies, allowing students to carry powered-down cellphones during the school day and turning a blind eye to lunchtime calls. Most confiscate phones that are used inappropriately in class.

Tobias said the proposed policy in Prince George’s would allow a principal to confiscate a phone that is being used inappropriately during the school day, including from students who videotape or post pictures of fights or sexual encounters.

“It’s not that the student has the phone that’s the problem,” Tobias said. “It’s what the students are doing with the phone that could be the problem.”

The original proposal would have given teachers authority to confiscate phones, but Segun Eubanks, the board chairman, said he does not want teachers taking phones from students and had that language changed.

If approved by the full board, the new policy could go into effect when schools reopen in August, allowing students to use the devices on school buses, at after-school activities and during the regular school day. The full board plans to consider the policy for the first time next week.

Nyasia Williams, who graduated from Central High School last month, said she never understood why Prince George’s banned cellphones.

“I just don’t agree with it, especially since when there is an emergency, teachers won’t let you use it,” said Williams, who was unable to use her phone during her four years in high school.

When Prince George’s approved its policy in 2010, it was in line with cities such as New York and Detroit, where school leaders were struggling to balance the desires of parents to be in contact with their children and teachers who raised concerns about the distractions of electronic devices.

Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators and a former Fairfax County superintendent, said school systems began reexamining cellphone policies after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the D.C.-area sniper shootings and mass school shootings. Domenech said cellphone bans can be a safety concern, preventing students from contacting their parents in emergencies.

Now, he said, school districts are taking a “bring-your-own-device approach” to the classroom, making changes to their policies to address digital learning.

A survey last year by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, in collaboration with the College Board and the National Writing Project, found that middle and high school teachers in Advanced Placement and National Writing Project courses said mobile devices are central to learning. Nearly 75 percent of the teachers said they and their students use cellphones in the classroom to complete assignments.

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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