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Can you hear me now? - Columbia public schools communicate clearer cell phone policies

Wednesday, September 12, 2007 | 1:55 p.m. CDT; updated 2:31 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Rock Bridge High School juniors Kelsey Yang, left, and Becca Brocksmith send text messages from their cell phones during a lunch break in the school’s “cell phone zone” outside the cafeteria. Rock Bridge has relaxed its policy on student cell phone use. Students can now use phones in special areas.

Nobody likes being the bad guy — especially Jennifer Black Cone, a teacher at Rock Bridge High School who found herself policing the hallways for cell phones last year.

When Black Cone tried to enforce the school’s no-cell phones rule, she encountered defiant students.

School policies at a glance

Douglass: Cell phone use is permitted before or after school hours and in the cafeteria during lunch period. Hickman: Cell phones are allowed in the commons before, during and after school; they are not allowed in hallways or classrooms. Rock Bridge: Cell phones can be used at any time in the cafeteria, surrounding commons areas and designated hallways. They cannot be used in classrooms and adjacent hallways during instructional periods.

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“When you’d ask them to turn it off, they’d turn around and continue the conversation,” she said.

“You asked them to give it to you, and they just walked away. That was my favorite.”

Tim Baker is also familiar with power struggles over cell phones as the assistant principal at Douglass High School, Columbia’s public alternative school.

Last year, students were frequently tardy to class, he said, because they lingered too long in the hallways chatting on their cell phones. Douglass allowed students to use mobiles, provided they did not disrupt the learning environment.

This year, the two schools have reversed their policies: Rock Bridge permits cell phones in designated areas during the school day. Douglass prohibits them except during lunch period.

Although the reactions differ, both were inspired by a need for clear, consistent rules.

As cell phones become widespread on school campuses, teachers and administrators are trying to figure out how best to regulate them.

They have become “an extension of kids’ fingers,” Black Cone said.

Both Rock Bridge and Douglass are quick to recognize that students use mobiles during the school day for perfectly legitimate reasons, such as calling home or dealing with an emergency.

But cell phones can be disruptive, with uses ranging from the benign ­— texting friends — to the sinister — trading answers on tests.

The Columbia School District allows each secondary school to develop its own guidelines for cell phones.

Hickman High School’s policy did not change this year. Cell phones are still allowed in the commons before, during and after school; they are not allowed in hallways or classrooms, said Doug Mirts, Hickman’s activities director.

At Rock Bridge, this year’s new compromise policy is similar. It allows students to use cell phones any time of day in the cafeteria, surrounding commons areas and designated hallways.

Students are prohibited from using cell phones in classrooms and adjacent hallways during instructional periods.

A sign taped on a wall in the front lobby makes the policy clear. It reads: “Cell Phone Zone.”

Signs taped to classroom doors further clarify the rules: “Instructional Area — No Cell Phones.”

Dennis Murphy, library media specialist for Rock Bridge, chaired a technology committee last year with questions for teachers about attitudes toward the phones.

Responses were mixed, suggesting confusion and inconsistent enforcement of the no-cell rules.

The committee considered the teacher responses, as well as requests from students, to determine the policy change.

Many teachers seem to be satisfied with the results so far.

“In any public venue, we’re not going to completely eliminate cell phones going off,” said Rock Bridge teacher Mary Margaret Coffield, who thinks the new policy gives more “wiggle room” to the students by allowing phones in certain areas.

“We just made it a nonissue,” Coffield said.

Several Rock Bridge students point out that there is no longer a need to hide their cell phones during the day.

Black Cone said she likes the fact that the new policy is, in part, student-driven.

“Freedom with responsibility” is the mantra, she said. She also recognizes the freedom the new policy gives her.

“I walk down the hallway, and I see a kid with a phone,” she said, “and I giggle because I think ‘I’m free! I’m free!’”

Baker, on the other hand, thinks teachers and administrators became too “soft” last year about confiscating phones. He said the vaguely worded rules were difficult to police with any consistency.

“Some teachers had kind of thrown their hands in the air, but we would never take that last step,” Baker said.

Students at Douglass are now permitted to use cell phones only before and after school hours or in the cafeteria during lunch period. At both Rock Bridge and Douglass, students caught overstepping the boundaries will have their phones confiscated.

If it is the first offense, a student can pick up the phone at the end of the day. Subsequent offenses require a parent or guardian to retrieve the phone at school.

Baker said that three parents have been asked to rescue a child’s cell phone so far this year.

“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect so far, but it’s certainly an improvement,” Baker said.

Baker said it is also important for Douglass students to demonstrate appropriate cell phone use because of the school’s structure. Douglass offers three off-campus satellite programs, including the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans Hospital Program, which provides on-the-job paid training for students.

“You’re potentially being handed a career,” Baker said, “so we don’t leave them much room for error.”

He said, however, that discipline problems at the satellite programs were “few and far between” before the change in cell phone policy.

Shelby Griggs, a Douglass senior, said the school is making a greater effort to communicate the new policy.

She said she already sees a difference in the hallways. Last year, students would talk on their phones during passing time, and even leave class to chat. This year, it is happening less often.

Kayla Johnson, also a Douglass student, said that “cell phones are not that big a deal” and that the new policy affects the teachers more than it does the students.

“They’re trying to get the students to do better,” she said. “The ones that are more lenient will either give you a warning or talk to you about it and say, ‘You could be doing this right now — why are you doing that instead?’”

“Everything is more set,” Kayla said. “They expect more of us this year.”


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