Area schools revise cell phone policies

ADDISON COUNTY — As cell phones become an integral part of cultural, social and intellectual life, county schools are re-evaluating their approaches to student use of the electronic gizmos — and coming up with some very different policies.
While administrators at Vergennes Union High School this week temporarily instituted new, stricter cell phone rules, Middlebury Union High School was getting ready to loosen its rules at the end of a lengthy evaluation process.
“Electronic devices have multiple functions,” said MUHS Principal Bill Lawson. “Since they’re so prevalent in society, it’s a matter of teaching kids the appropriate ways to use them.”
Lawson said that the Responsible Use of Technology Committee that he created last year recommended in December that the school move forward on new rules that will allow students to use cell phones anywhere but in class. Once the students enter a classroom, they will be required to shut them off. The new rules go into effect next Tuesday, at the start of the spring semester.
Currently, the MUHS student handbook states that cell phone use is not allowed in the building at all during instructional hours. But many teachers also keep cell phones with them during the day, and Lawson said it’s increasingly difficult to determine when students are using phones as a calculator, a camera, or a way of keeping in contact with parents and friends.
MUHS senior Angela Brisson, president of the student senate, said the revised rules are nearly the same as the ones that she and a committee of other students authored last spring.
“Cell phone use in the high school has been a big issue for a while,” she said. “(The rule) was never enforced as strictly as the student handbook said it was enforced.”
And, like Lawson, she said that there’s an increasingly thin line between a cell phone and a tool — many students use their phones as calendars or music players as well.
“There’s always going to be the student who tries to get away with texting in his pocket during class,” she said.
But Brisson said she trusts her fellow students to follow these rules, for the most part.
“I think it’s going to be very well received,” she said.
Lawson, too, said that he doesn’t anticipate too much upheaval over the change in rules.
“Sometimes there’s a lot of anxiety around a change,” he said. “But once it happens, people will adjust to it pretty quickly.”
And, he added, it is a platform to teach the students to use technology respectfully.
“We’re asking them to be considerate,” he said. “We’re in the business of helping students to grow both academically and socially.”
Across the region, Otter Valley Union High School and Mount Abraham Union High School have similar rules for cell phone use in classes.
OV is in its second year of its new cell phone procedure. Co-principal Nancy Robinson said that students can use phones on breaks and at lunch, but once they enter a classroom they must put their cell phones into a bin to prevent use during class.
Robinson said that prior to the institution of the rule, students were not allowed to use cell phones during the school day — but many still did. After the change, she said, there was a notable change in attitude among students.
“There was a turnaround with what was happening with cell phones,” she said. “(The students) actually thought it was fair.”
Since the new rule went into place, Robinson said there have been few cell phone disciplinary issues.
Nancy Yannett, dean of students for grades 10 to 12 at Mount Abe, said there has been a similar change in the attitude of students since the school changed its rules. After the school’s first cell phone rule went into place two years ago, students were not allowed to use cell phones during school hours.
Then, last January, the school approved a new proposal by the community council, made up of students, staff and community members. These new rules encompassed all electronic devices, and stated that students could use the devices outside of class during breaks and lunch, in designated areas. In addition, students in the middle school had added instruction on cell phone and technology use.
Two years ago, Yannett said that the rules were put in place in part to address cyber bullying at the school. And she said she has seen a definite decrease in reports of cell phone harassment.
“We’re trying to incorporate the educational aspect, instead of just saying, ‘You can’t have that,’” she said.
In contrast with the trend of loosening restrictions on cell phones and other electronics, VUHS this week was forced to change its rules temporarily to forbid cell phones from being visible within the building — and phones that are confiscated must be picked up by a parent.
VUHS Co-principal Peter Reynolds said the change stemmed from a harassment issue involving a number of students at the school.
“Cell phones in the last four or five years have come to the place where they’re used as weapons,” said Reynolds.
Until this week, the school’s cell phone rules were lenient: Middle school students could not use phones during the day, and high school students could not use their phones during classes.
But Reynolds said the administration plans to change its practices following this incident. As it is, he said, the school’s basic conduct guidelines are not being respected.
“This is a temporary, somewhat draconian response on our part,” he said. “What’s being violated are kindness, respect, integrity and being present.”
He said that the administration was already working with faculty and students to evaluate and come to new conclusions regarding cell phone rules.
“Sometimes as adults we go too far in solving problems for kids,” he said. “On the other hand, there are kids who feel unsafe.”
Reynolds said that this is not a new conversation for the VUHS administration, and it’s one that he often discusses with other area principals.
“We all have the same concerns,” he said. “How do we keep this place safe and productive?”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].
MIDDLEBURY — There will be an informational meeting about texting for parents in the Middlebury Union High School commons on Thursday, Jan. 27, from 6:45 to 8 p.m. Several speakers, including Lt. Tracy Simon from the Orange Sheriff’s Department and John D’Esposito from the Vermont Teen Leadership Safety Program will talk about “sexting,” safety and privacy issues, available resources for parents, legal implications and how to communicate with teens about this sensitive topic. There will also be a question-and-answer period.

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