Iowa School District Struggles to Contain Cellphone Use

Students have been allowed to use their cellphones for educational purposes, but now that the district has purchased Chromebooks, the phones must go.

by Winona Whitaker, Ottumwa Courier / June 4, 2018
(TNS) — OTTUMWA — As technology advances and students become more dependent on it, schools are forced to find ways to regulate the use of electronic devices.

Ottumwa’s school board discussed cellphone rules during Thursday’s meeting before approving new handbooks for the middle school and high school.

Last year Evans Middle School banned the use of cellphones during lunch periods in an attempt to cut down on cyberbullying. Thursday, Evans Principal Steve Zimmerman explained that next year cellphones must be turned off and kept in student lockers during the day.

The 2017-2018 handbook says that there may be times when students may be allowed to use their devices for educational purposes, but Zimmerman said that with the new Chromebooks purchased by the school, students won’t need their phones for access to apps or Internet.

Board member Bill Allen took issue with the word “may” in both the current policy and the revised one. The handbook should say that the cell phone “will” be confiscated if a student is caught using a cellphone or device without permission, Allen said.

Students may feel a great loss if they don’t have their phones, but that’s what they need if they are to learn to follow the rules, Allen said. “Consequences need to be swift and painful.”

“There is no ‘may’,” said Zimmerman. “They are confiscated.”

The handbook should say “will be confiscated” so that students know what to expect, Allen said, but teachers can still decide not to confiscate the phone under extenuating circumstances.

However, Superintendent Nicole Kooiker said that if the handbook says “will,” teachers must confiscate the phone and cannot act with discretion.

The only example Zimmerman could think of in which a student might be allowed to keep a phone after a violation of the rule is if the need for a phone is listed in the student’s Individualized Education Program, a document listing special needs for students with special education requirements.

Upon second and subsequent violations of the policy, a parent or guardian is required to pick up the phone; it will not be returned to the student, the handbook says.

Student safety will trump the rule, however, Zimmerman said. If a student has to walk home after school or after an activity and the parent wants the child to have a phone during that time, the school may return it to the student.

“That’s sometimes where the ‘mays’ and ‘shalls’ come in,” said High School Principal Cory Johnson. The wording gives teachers flexibility.

Board Member Nancy Manson asked if the school confiscates a lot of cellphones. “At the start of the year we do,” Zimmerman said, but most students stop violating the rule after losing their phone once.

The board discussed the electronic device section of the high school handbook as well.

Board member Gary Granneman said that some teachers ignore the rules. Students know which teachers will let them have cellphones and which won’t, Granneman said. “The policy is about the same as five years ago, but it’s not enforced consistently.”

Some changes in policy are due to changes in the way people use technology, Johnson said. “Things like smart watches are now an issue.” Teachers may now confiscate smart watches during tests to keep students from checking answers on the watch.

Earlier this year some students used devices to order lunch from an outside source for delivery to the school, Johnson said, which violates federal laws regulating school lunches. The school quickly put a stop to the practice.

©2018 the Ottumwa Courier (Ottumwa, Iowa). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.