Texting a growing concern in schools

Posted Aug. 23, 2009, at 9:05 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — If national surveys are an accurate indicator for Maine, two-thirds of high school students this year will have a cell phone or other communications device.

With more technology comes the possibility of more problems, especially in schools, where educators face difficulties balancing encouragement of the use of electronic devices with discouraging their misuse.

“What do you do when they are using technology inappropriately?” said Education Commissioner Susan Gendron. “You want to discourage inappropriate use, but not discourage students from learning the skills they will need when they leave school.”

She said multitasking on cell phones, Blackberries, and similar devices are now routine for a wide range of jobs. She said having the skills to use communications devices to their maximum is fast becoming necessary.

Shannon Welsh, superintendent for RSU 5 in the Durham area and president of the Maine Superintendents Association, agreed.

“We do not want these tools to interrupt the learning environment,” she said. “They should not interfere with a teacher in the classroom.

“But if it is during a learning activity in which students are using laptops and they are doing research, some students may have an iPhone or Blackberry and want to use them for research.”

Welsh said it is a difficult “balancing act” for both teachers and school administrators to encourage the use of cutting edge technology and at the same time make sure use of that technology does not interfere with teaching.

“I have a simple rule,” said Thornton Academy history teacher Devin Beliveau. “Use it in my class, and it’s mine.”

He said use of any devices is banned in his classroom, although the 30-year-old said he is as plugged in as anyone. He said students have the opportunity to use cell phones and other devices during other times of the day, but not in the classroom.

“There are too many ways these can be used inappropriately,” Beliveau said. “They can take pictures of tests and send them and text questions.”

Rep. Allan Casavant, D-Biddeford, agrees. A 33-year veteran teacher of social studies, he said keeping up with technology changes is a challenge.

“Last spring, my last semester teaching, I caught two students cheating by texting,” he said. “You have to be aware of what they can do with just a cell phone.”

Casavant said he understands why parents want their teens to have a cell phone for communication, but schools have to set appropriate limits like allowing use during lunch period.

Welsh said that is what most school districts do. She said most warn first about the school policies, then confiscate the phone or other device and send it to the principal’s office where a student may need to get approval of their parents to get the device back.

What concerns teachers and school officials the most is use of the devices to harass other students and in some cases use them for “sexting,” sexually explicit text messages or the sending of inappropriate or pornographic images.

“It goes on, we know that,” Gendron said. “We have seen what the national studies indicate, and they are disturbing.”

Welsh said she has not heard examples of sexting in Maine schools, but she has heard of many examples of harassing messages of various types.

“Where I have heard of and seen abuse, whether it is harassing text or other, has been in the more social environment of the schools where it is a little harder to monitor, the hallways or students hanging around outside their lockers or after school,” she said.

Welsh said inappropriate behavior is met with a whole range of sanctions depending on the seriousness of the incident and individual school policies.

She said some activity could also be illegal and involve law enforcement.

There are no studies in Maine of how much inappropriate use of phones and other devices occurs in high schools, but a few national studies indicate it is widespread. One online survey among 323 anonymous volunteers indicated nearly two-thirds of the 14- to 19-year-old respondents were sexting.

Gendron said schools need to have policies in place to deal with inappropriate use and make sure students have a “trusted adult” to whom they can report harassment or worse behavior by another student.

“We have to teach what is appropriate social behavior, including appropriate use of phones and these other devices,” she said. “I worry about the mentality where we ask kids to disconnect when they come in to school, because that is not the world we live in today.”

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