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Stafford debate continues on schools’ cellphone policy

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Teacher opposition may spell defeat for more liberal cellphone restrictions in Stafford schools.

At the same time, administrators continue to support the change as a way of bringing the schools into the 21st century.

A majority of respondents to a survey sent out to Stafford’s middle and high school staff opposed allowing students to use their cellphones between classes and during lunch. That opposition wasn’t as strong, however, when it came to allowing students to use the devices before and after school. Almost 80 percent of the survey respondents were teachers.

A committee of administrators recommended the changes that would allow middle and high school students to use their cell phones in the halls or cafeterias. Filming or taking photographs would still be prohibited, but the students could now call, text or access the Internet at lunch or in between classes. Staff permission would still be required for students to use the devices in the classroom.

Currently, students are only able to possess cell phones during school hours, but can’t display the phones unless they are given permission.

After receiving the survey data at their Tuesday meeting, School Board members were hesitant to adopt the new rules.

“I’m just worried that the proposed changes right now are a step too far. It’s difficult for parents and teachers frankly to accept students having that much usage,” School Board member Scott Hirons said.

School Board member Dewayne McOsker agreed.

“For seven hours a day, can the kids just stay in school and not use social media? I’m old school … I think we can work on the policy,” McOsker said.

A majority of survey respondents, 63 percent, strongly disagreed with allowing students to use personal cell phones between classes. Almost 50 percent of respondents disagreed with the allowance during lunch. Respondents were split almost evenly for allowing devices before school, but a majority supported cell phone use after school.

“The data doesn’t say definitively that every one is against,” School Board member Patricia Healy said. “If all of our high school principals are jointly recommending something, then I’m very hesitant to not take that recommendation. It’s a different world.”

A majority of respondents said that students occasionally use personally electronic devices in the classroom, as opposed to frequently or very frequently.

“After 9/11 and Columbine, I supported the use of cell phones. It just seems that our young people are obsessed with this technology to the point where it is a distraction from their education,” School Board member Dana Reinboldt said.

Several administrators who spoke in favor of the changes at the Tuesday board meeting laid bare the split between administrators and teachers on the issue.

James Stemple, the principal at Mountain View High School, said that he would have to begin enlisting teachers to patrol the hallways to enforce what he deemed an unenforceable rule.

“This rule in this century just does not make sense,” Stemple said.

Stemple also pointed to the school’s strategic plan, which has 21st century skills as one priority for students.

“My life is in this [cell phone]. This is who we are now. If we don’t allow our students to be able to be part of the 21st century communication, I feel that we are doing them a disservice,” School Board Chair Nanette Kidby said.

The changes would be more relaxed than cell phone policies of school systems that Stafford compares itself to. Albemarle, Chesterfield, Henrico and Spotsylvania schools don’t allow students to communicate on their phones during school hours. Others like Fauquier and Loudoun leaves definitions and authorizations up to principals.

Healy recommended a one-year pilot program for the high schools, which the board will consider again at its next meeting.

There did seem to be unanimous support among the board for a smaller change: reducing the penalty for the current rules. If a student’s cell phone is seen, that student can be punished with a minimum of a suspension of 10 days or less or a maximum for explusion. That can affect acceptance into honor societies. With the changes, the penalty for a first-time offender would just be a warning.

A total of 534 people responded to the survey out of the 1,600 employees at Stafford’s secondary schools. The anonymous survey will continue to be active for another couple of weeks to allow the remaining 1,066 people to respond, school staff said.

Vanessa Remmers: 540/735-1975

vremmers@freelancestar.com

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