Schools give mixed signals on cell phone use

August 23, 2013

Flickr/Bryan McDonald
Chicago area students debate the use of cell phones in classrooms.

As students around Chicago go back to school, many have to leave their mobile phones at home. That’s because many districts are restricting the use of cell phones during school hours.

Take southwest suburban Plainfield Community Consolidated School District 202. Its school board this week stuck to a policy that requires students to turn off cell phones and store them in lockers.

Some administrators and principals had lobbied this week to at least allow high school students to be able to use the phones between classes.

The school board, though, didn’t budge.

“The policy has been for several years that students are not allowed to have cell phones during the academic day,” said District 202 spokesman Tom Hernandez. “They are supposed to turn them off and put them away in their lockers.” Hernandez said phones can become a distraction, adding that students can learn a lesson when they leave their phones off for a day.

“What the principals suggested was this might be a way to teach kids accountability or responsibility. You don’t need to use that phone during the classroom time. You shouldn’t have that phone, because in two minutes you’re going to be in the hallway,” Hernandez said. “You’ll have an opportunity to send your parents a text or to let them know that you are doing this or that after school. To send those kinds of messages, you don’t have to do that kind of stuff during the classroom.”

Hernandez said there was also a concern about cheating with the use smart phones.

“Security issues are a natural concern now because the phones do everything, they take the pictures and all that kind of stuff,” Hernandez said.

District 202 board members were also unmoved by cell phones’ potential use during emergencies.

“Obviously that is a reality and quite frankly, having kids texting and so forth during emergency situations really doesn’t help,” Hernandez said.

The board has backers for its policy, including from parents such as Debbie Maydak.

“You’re at school to learn. You’re not there to text your friends and stuff like that,” Maydak said. “I don’t think you should have your phone with you when you’re at school and a lot of businesses don’t even allow it when you’re at work.”

Maydak has two children in the schools; one attends an elementary school, while the other is in middle school.

She said there are opportunities for her kids or the school to call her if they need something.

“With the district having so many ways to communicate with the parent these days, to get the word out if there is any type of incident or anything like that,” Maydak said. “I don’t see the need for [cell phones]. Some parents might, but I do not.”

But parent Joann Badali wrote on the Plainfield Patch Facebook page that the district’s cell phone policy restricts learning of new technology.

“I'm not advocating cell phone use for things like updating your Facebook status, making calls to friends, but what about using cell phones for inputting homework assignments and setting reminders for project deadlines? Do these Board members really think that our students are going out to buy planners to keep their appointments and deadlines on track after they graduate,” Badali wrote. “Why not truly ‘prepare learners for the future’ by allowing them , or even assisting them, in learning how to use the technology available to them?”

Bob Flores, whose daughter Rachel is a senior at Plainfield North High School, said cell phones are a distraction during school and need to be restricted, but an exception can be made.

“It should be up to the teachers to allow cell phone use in their classrooms if it is to be used for class purposes,” Flores said. “There are times that tech needs to be used and the teachers will need to monitor.”

Some Chicago-area school districts have taken a different, more lenient approach on student cell phones.

Ryan Bretag, director of Instructional Technology at Glenbrook North and South high schools, said cell phones were restricted just four years ago. But attitudes started to change in 2010.

“We look at this as an opportunity to empower students and create a culture that’s positive,” Bretag said. “We really started talking from two different angles. We really have these powerful devices in the hands of students. What was the impact on the learning environment by not having them out?”

If you’re a Chicago Public School student, there is no one policy you must follow. A CPS spokeswoman said each principal is responsibility for setting the cell phone use policy for their school.

Follow WBEZ’s Northwest Indiana reporter Michael Puente on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.