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Pennsylvania Mulls Statewide Restrictions of Student Phones

A forthcoming bill proposed by Democrat Rep. Anthony DeLuca would permit local districts to develop policies on bans, but they would be subject to approval by the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Some of the least prepared governments, such as Pennsylvania, have repeatedly struggled to balance budgets, even as the economy has recovered.
(David Kidd)
(TNS) — A Pittsburgh-area school district's policy restricting student access to smartphones during the school day moved a state lawmaker to consider a law mandating the same across the state.

A forthcoming bill, announced by Democrat Rep. Anthony DeLuca of Allegheny County, will seek to ban students' personal Internet-ready devices from schools. He's inspired by Penn Hills School District in his legislative territory. The school district began a pilot program at Linton Middle School this year.

Local districts would be permitted to develop policies on bans, DeLuca wrote in a legislative memo. The policies, however, would be subject to approval by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, he wrote.

A statewide ban prevents "patchwork" policymaking across Pennsylvania, DeLuca said. He expects bipartisan support given how much attention there's been on in-school distractions and social media use.

"This is a worthy initiative. I think it should be in place in all schools," DeLuca said Monday.

DeLuca's assessment is that at Linton Middle School, the smartphone policy led to positive results in engagement and school culture. That's the feeling among administrators and faculty, according to the Penn Hills Superintendent Nancy Hines.

There's no behavioral study associated with the pilot program but anecdotally, Hines said it's been successful in improving student focus and the academic atmosphere — so much so that the district will implement the policy at its high school next fall.

Aside from aiming to improve focus during the school day, Mills said the policy is intended to mitigate negative social media content, especially ugly rumors and inflammatory messages, from causing harm.

According to the 2021 Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS), a biennial survey on student risk behavior and wellness, 23 percent of students indicated they'd been bullied in the past 12 months, with nearly 15 percent saying the bullying occurred online. Also, 20 percent said they received inappropriate sexual messages through technology.

"Of students who indicated they had been cyber bullied, 61.2 percent indicated feeling so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in past year that they stopped doing usual activities. In the past year, 41.5 percent of those students had seriously considered suicide, 33.8 percent had made a suicide plan, and 30.1 percent had attempted suicide," the PAYS survey states.

The 2021 PAYS report is built on 246,081 student surveys deemed valid responses. The surveys are taken by students in 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th grades.

Mills called herself the last holdout on a policy barring personal devices, preferring to trust that students, especially older students, could police the use of Internet devices on their own. Schools, including Penn Hills, offer devices for school use.

"This whole concept has been discussed back and forth for about four years. For me, it was harder to concede," Hines said.

The process is simple. Students arrive at school and must lock communication devices including smartwatches into Yondr pouches, a brand of security devices. The pouches can't be opened before students exit the building for the day. On a repeat violation, students risk losing their devices until a parent or guardian comes to the school building to retrieve them.

The security pouches have been used at certain concert venues and required by some touring acts, courthouses and elsewhere. The Penn Hills school board approved the purchase of 1,130 pouches at a cost of $18,975 for next school year.

Penn Hills has 3,200 students including 700 in the middle school and 1,100 in the high school. Mills said student opinions were sought from class officers and student council members. Opposition, she said, has been minimal.

As Mills spoke, she referred to two phones on her desk — one for work, another being her personal device. Distractions aren't limited to students, she said.

"If I hear a buzz, I'm looking over, and the kids are doing the same thing," Mills said. "I'd rather not have to impose this but I don't have a choice if we can't on our own get it checked."

Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators, said a statewide law regulating students' in-school use of personal Internet-capable devices is misguided. Such decisions should be made locally, he said.

When DiRocco served as superintendent of Lewisburg Area School District in Union County, he said restrictions were tighter on middle school students. They could keep devices in their lockers and check on them from time to time. At the high school, he said there was greater leeway to allow personal responsibility.

"For the state to get down to that level of (oversight) in districts, we think it's something better for local officials to handle," DiRocco said.

©2022 The Daily Item (Sunbury, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.