RI lawmaker seeks to mute cell phones during school

Posted April 19, 2011, at 10:03 p.m.
Last modified April 20, 2011, at 12:49 p.m.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Robert Mayne sees the sly texters slouched at their desks. He hears the muffled chirps of smartphones tucked in bluejeans or backpacks. He worries a student might email the week’s math test to a friend in the afternoon class.

“They’re not just phones,” said Mayne, a high school math teacher at Chariho High School in Richmond. “They take photos. They text. They email. There are games, the Internet, Youtube. It’s not just one distraction. It’s dozens.”

Count Mayne a supporter of legislation in Rhode Island’s General Assembly to prohibit students from using cell phones during the school day. Some educators question how a ban would be enforced, and whether they’re waging a battle against technology they can’t win. But Mayne said a state law will give teeth to efforts to curb bullying, inappropriate photos, cheating and the myriad disruptions caused by cell phones in school.

Under the legislation students could still carry phones in school, but they couldn’t use them during school hours, including study hall and lunch. A first offense results in a warning. A second violation would lead to administrators confiscating the phone for three days. The third time, the phone would be kept for five days. Exceptions would be made for emergencies.

Sen. John Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield, introduced the bill after leading a legislative task force investigating cyberbullying. The work led Tassoni to conclude that cellular prohibition is the best way to ensure students are focusing on a textbook, not Facebook.

“If a phone becomes a problem, then we’re going to take it away,” he said. “Not only are people using them to bully other students, but they’re using them to cheat.”

Two decades ago states banned pagers to address drug dealing and gang violence. Many states repealed the bans after the 1999 Columbine school shooting and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks showed how cell phones could help in emergencies.

While many school districts restrict phone use, Rhode Island would be the only state with a law specifically banning phone use in school, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Good luck, said Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. According to Trump, 80 percent of U.S. schools restrict student cell phone use. That Rhode Island is considering a statewide ban just shows that local policies aren’t working, he said.

“The horse is out of the barn,” said Trump, who advises schools on communication policy. “Even in schools where phones are prohibited, everyone knows they’re there but administrators turn their heads.”

Providence, the state’s largest school district, prohibits cell phone use during the school day. Administrators confiscate phones from students who cause repeated problems, though a warning usually resolves the problem, according to Nkoli Onye, the district’s executive director for high schools.

“We don’t search our students,” Onye said. “We don’t want to be the phone police. We simply ask that if they have a cell phone, they keep it out of sight.”

Onye predicts that schools will someday embrace devices much like today’s smartphones as a teaching tool, she said.

“The technology isn’t going away,” she said. “Will we even have textbooks in schools in 15 years, or will students use something like an iPad? The big question is how we use this technology to enhance education.”

Pawtucket schools also prohibit phone use in classrooms. Superintendent Deborah Cylke said a rigid state ban could cause conflicts when a teacher takes a student’s $400 smartphone for three days.

“No. 1, it’s unrealistic,” she said of the proposal. “Teenagers are teenagers. They’ll find a way. No. 2, it’s unenforceable. I tend to be a realist. These are tools that young people want.”

A case-by-case approach is more reasonable, Cylke said. A student who uses a cell phone to cheat or harass a peer is one thing, she said. A student who calls home during study hall to arrange a ride home is another.

The idea of a statewide ban delighted Lisa Gray of Providence, but not her daughter Lindsey.

Lindsey, 13, said students have learned to be inconspicuous with their phones.

“You’re not allowed to use them, but everybody does,” she said, smartphone in hand when her mom picked her up from school.

Lisa Gray said cell phones are great in emergencies but aren’t necessary during the school day. She recently set a new rule at home: no cell phone use after 8 p.m.

“They can live without distractions for a few hours every day,” she said. “We grew up without them.”

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