Back to School - Don’t Forget Your Cell Phone!
As middle school students go back to school this week in Montgomery County, MD, many of them will probably have cell phones in their backpacks. But this school year, they won’t be penalized for doing so, as the local school board expands its relaxation of cell phone restrictions.
The debate over student cell phone possession has never been an easy one. Critics of the idea have long argued that cell phones are a major distraction at best, and a catalyst for bullying and cheating at worst. Supporters, though, insist that cell phones are a necessity for parents to communicate with their kids, particularly during times of emergency. Battle lines have been drawn all over the country, particularly in large school districts like New York City, which enforces a strict prohibition against cell phones on campus.
These battle lines, however, have shifted in suburban Washington DC. For 12 years, cell phones and pagers on campus were actually banned by Maryland state law. In the wake of the September 11 attacks six years ago, members of the Montgomery County school board and others successfully lobbied the state legislature to overturn the law. Once this happened, local school districts approached cell phone policies in different ways. Calvert County schools, for example, allowed students to carry phones if their parents signed a waiver. Howard County, adopted more of a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy: keep it out of sight and we won’t confiscate it.
In Montgomery County, high school students could carry phones as long as they were switched off, while middle school students needed a parental waiver. But as the Washington Post reported yesterday, the county has now extended their high school cell phone policy to middle schools as well.
It wasn’t an easy decision-making process, as many middle school administrators were nervous that middle school students lacked the maturity to possess cell phones responsibly. So last year, the school board decided to conduct a cell phone policy testbed with four local middle schools, observing how the draft policy impacted learning and discipline. According to Joseph Sacco, principal one of the four testbed schools, there were some instances of cell phones going off in class. However, they didn’t experience any serious incidents, such as students using cell phones to transmit test answers or snap inappropriate photos. This, despite the fact that an estimated 25% of sixth graders and 50% of eighth graders carried phones during the school year. Prior to the testbed, said Sacco, “We were enforcing a well-intentioned policy that was out of step with modern realities.”
Based on the success of the testbed program, the school board voted this summer to extend the policy to all middle schools. “You know, cellphones are ubiquitous these days,” said board member Patricia O’Neill. “Many elementary students have cellphones. They’re marketed for safety and security purposes.”
Of course, it’s just the beginning of the school year, and only time will tell if Montgomery County’s decision is a wise one. I’m hopeful it’ll work. Either way, I think they deserve kudos for conducting a testbed prior to changing their policy, allowing them to make an informed decision based on local school dynamics. -andy