Sarasota, Fla., Debates a Complete Ban on Cellphones in Schools

Currently, students can bring their phones on to campus, just not use them. Now, the school board is looking at a complete ban, but not everyone is on board with the proposed policy change.

by Elizabeth Djinis, Sarasota Herald-Tribune / January 15, 2019

(TNS) — It's hard to go anywhere these days without seeing someone's neck angled toward a device, their eyes scanning the screen of a cellphone as they walk.

Yet in Sarasota County Schools, the reality is a little different. Students are allowed to have cellphones on campus but they are asked to have them "powered off and concealed from view" during the school day, according to School Board policy.

That doesn't necessarily mean students don't have their phones at school, according to district spokeswoman Kelsey Whealy. Some schools have "cellphone friendly" areas and some teachers even ask students to use cellphones for instruction, Whealy said.

"Our policy is structured in such a way that our schools have the ability to adjust it for the specific needs of their individual school community," Whealy said in an email.

But what if the policy were explicit? What if the policy said: no cellphones at school from the beginning of the school day until its end? That's something at least two School Board members, School Board Chairwoman Jane Goodwin and Board Member Bridget Ziegler, are interested in considering in some form when the policy comes up for a standard review by the board in February.

As it stands now, Goodwin said the policy is not being enforced. She noticed that when she visited a fifth-grade classroom and saw elementary school students using their phones at their desks.

"The intention was, the only time a cellphone would be out is if a teacher was engaged in using that cellphone for classroom purposes," Goodwin said. "That's the only time it was allowed, according to our policy, and that's not happening."

Goodwin is proposing an alternative: allow high school students to use their phones on a restricted basis, have middle school students put their phones away while at school and ban them entirely for elementary school students. Ziegler prefers something more all-encompassing: a blanket policy that would ban cellphones at school for any student at any age level while class is in session.

"There's just been a rolling element of evidence coming out that our children who are exposed to technology, it does, in fact, have a direct impact on their attention level, their behavioral elements, to be able to self de-escalate from scenarios," Ziegler said. "So if we can help ensure their focus on academics while they're in school, that's what we're there to do."

Not everyone is on board with this possible policy change, including Riverview High School junior Hailey Landry, who has been involved in community activism calling for stricter gun laws. She acknowledged there are pros and cons to having cellphones.

"Of course, any piece of technology is going to have some kind of duality to it where there are benefits but there are also going to be the disadvantages that everyone gets distracted," Landry said.

In many of Landry's classes, teachers will create a "cellphone parking lot" where students deposit their phones when they enter the classroom. But in other classes or activities during the school day, having a cellphone is a necessary part of the curriculum, Landry said, citing a college counseling activity in which instructors told students to look up colleges on their phones.

Other times, students won't use their phones in class out of respect for their teacher. One of Landry's favorite teachers, Riverview English teacher Es Swihart, who won the district's Teacher of the Year award last year, commands Landry's attention.

"If the teacher has earned the respect of me and my classmates, my classmates tend to not use our phones," Landry said. "In Ms. Swihart's class, best teacher on Earth, everyone has so much love and respect for her, we barely use our phones in that class because we genuinely want to know what she has to say."

Ziegler admits there are positives to having a cellphone in the classroom. In the event of a campus emergency, cellphones allow students quick contact to their parents and relatives. But she said there could be other solutions to serve the same purpose. She proposed emergency phones that could be installed inside and outside of campuses for anyone to use.

Goodwin also acknowledged that students could glean security information from their cellphones. The first tip-off that a social media threat has been made against a school often comes from students, according to former district head of security Michael Andreas. Landry echoed that idea.

"I feel like a lot of threats that we've gotten at Riverview itself have been through Snapchat, through social media, and the only reason that the students were able to see it and report it to the guidance and administration is because they were following that person on Instagram or had them on Snapchat and were able to see the posts and able to report it," Landry said.

But Goodwin said that largely applied to high school students rather than elementary and middle school students, which is where she mostly wants to limit cellphone use.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty in enacting a no-cellphone policy would be forcing students to abandon school use of a device they have become accustomed to having.

"There has been more willingness to adapt to the usage of it because they're so prevalent and there is a learning benefit to them," Ziegler said. "At the same time, is it counterproductive? The cat's out of the bag, but we need to rip the Band-Aid back and we need the pendulum to swing back to a level of normalcy."

©2019 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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