School Districts Allow Cellphones, Mobile Device Use On Campus
By KELLY GOOCH
It's lunch time at Bullard High School -- a prime opportunity for students to text, check Facebook and browse the Internet.
As they sit next to friends, some have their phones in front of them while others use electronic devices such as laptops.
"It's a lot better than not using it at all," sophomore Mallory McCoy said of the district allowing students to use cell phones during lunch.
Freshman Kacy Crook echoed her peer, saying she likes being able to use her phone, and it's more freedom than students have at other area schools.
Bullard and Whitehouse ISDs are some of the only East Texas school districts that allow students to use cell phones freely during certain times of the school day. But Henderson ISD could become the next district to lift a ban on electronic communications devices.
Administrators there are proposing a "Bring Your Own Device" program, where students would be able to use electronic devices, such as tablets, cell phones and laptops, in classrooms with teacher permission.
"They still won't be walking down the hall texting or calling," Deputy Superintendent Raylene Conner said, adding that 17 teachers and a librarian agreed to be part of the pilot program, which would begin in 2012-13.
Students are currently allowed to have electronic devices at school but are not allowed to use them.
However, with the new program, the district plans to open up an alternative network so it can provide Wi-Fi access for students while keeping current Internet access secure.
The project is estimated to cost about $132,000 -- about $52,000 to put in Wi-Fi infrastructure at Henderson High School and about $79,000 for a router, firewall and filter for the entire district.
"Our Wi-Fi will be filtered just like our current Internet access is, so it can prohibit certain websites...," Ms. Conner said. "If students somehow go around that, it will be a code of conduct violation, which probably would end ... their privilege to use the device."
Once the technology is in place, teachers will design lessons that allow students to incorporate the devices, and students can use them with teacher permission, Ms. Conner said. That could include research, taking notes or accessing useful websites.
"We've really felt that there was a need to go electronically with students," Ms. Conner said. "We looked at purchasing laptops for students but found out that was not feasible. We heard about 'Bring Your Own Device,' which is the thing the district has done. We need to be the ones teaching students how to use them properly and correctly."
If the program rolls out, she also thinks it will be "amazing" what students are able to do to enhance the educational process.
"I think what has been the biggest thing with us is kids' excitement. We're not trying to fight (changing technology), but let's use it to our advantage," she said.
Administrators informed school board members of their plan earlier this month and why they wanted to do it. They hope to come back to the board for approval at its meeting next month.Other districts
While Henderson ISD looks to remove its cell phone ban, leaders in other districts said their cell phone policies are working well.
Whitehouse ISD relaxed its policy last summer. It used to ban cell phones altogether, but it now allows students to possess cell phones and other electronic devices that are not in violation of district or campus rules.
"We've allowed each campus to make a determination as to when and where and how they're used on campus," Assistant Superintendent Richard Peacock said.
"What we're trying to do is allow teachers ... to use them for instructional purposes. We're allowing the teacher to allow it if their principal allows it."
At Whitehouse High School, students are allowed to use cell phones inside the cafeteria and commons area during lunch.
Principal Duane Barber said that use is limited to appropriate communication purposes, and anytime it causes an issue or some kind of conflict with people, the school can repeal the privilege.
"We monitor it. We've told them we don't want you up gathered around one table watching a video," he said.
"We're walking around in there, and the students know we can ask them at any point in time what they're doing. Usually they're texting parents or someone outside of school. They aren't allowed to text someone in another classroom. Teachers help monitor that."
Barber said students also can use cell phones in the classroom for educational purposes if their teacher lets them do so.
"It's at the discretion of the teacher. There are some teachers here where students can't use them at all for anything," he said.
Students who violate the cell phone policy face progressive disciplinary action. The first time, their device is confiscated, the school contacts their parent and they have to pay $15 to get it back at the end of the school day. The second time, it's confiscated and held for five school days, parents are contacted and a $15 charge still applies. The third time, the phone is held for 15 school days.
But Barber said as far as he knows, no student has gone past a second offense.
"We don't get a lot of cell phones even on the first offense," he said. "Students understand it's a privilege they have, and they try not to abuse it."
He added, "This is the first year and at the end, we will evaluate how well it worked, what the issues were and address anything that needs to be addressed."
In Troup ISD, students in seventh through 12th grades are issued laptop computers, so they already have a wireless device on-hand.
Students can use the computers at any time, including lunch, and take them home.
Superintendent Dr. Marvin Beaty said the district does a couple things to monitor laptop use -- there is a filter, which will block most inappropriate websites, and technologists who can pull up the screen of any computer and view what the person is looking at.
"There are times when it's questionable, and they can shut it down from a remote site," he said.
Even though students can use laptops, a ban on cell phones was put in place to prevent students from texting during class or using them in other ways that would disrupt the learning environment, Beaty said.
If a cell phone does go off during class, he said the teacher collects it, and the student must pay a fee to get it back. He estimated the first-time offense is $10, and the fee progresses if the offense continues.
But Like Whitehouse ISD, he said cell phone use has not been a big issue.
"I think years ago or so when we first (instituted a ban), there were a few folks who weren't happy, but we haven't heard a complaint in five years, mainly because we provide them with information retrieval (through laptops)...," he said.
"Our objective is not to make anyone's life more challenging. Our goal is to protect the learning environment."
In the future, he said Troup ISD might consider lifting the ban on cell phone use if it will improve learning in the classroom and if there is an effective way to filter it.
As far as Tyler ISD, district spokeswoman Laura Jackson said the district is always going to need to address the use of electronic devices.
Although students are prohibited from using cell phones in classrooms, teachers and administrators use judgment when it comes to possible discipline, she said. For instance, if a cell phone falls out of a student's pocket, the teacher likely wouldn't confiscate it.
However, if the student is using the phone during class, the teacher may confiscate the phone. In order to get it back, a parent would have to come and retrieve it and sign for it, she said.
She also noted that Tyler ISD keeps clear records of confiscated phones, and the district has the option of charging a fee to release the electronic device.
"Our goal is to maintain focus on instruction whenever (students are) on campus," she said. "If a student pulls out a phone and starts talking (during class), it's different than sending a text during lunch. That's where discretion comes in. We do enforce the policy, but you have to see the spirit of it. (The goal is) to maintain the focus on instruction."
In the future, she said the district is open to policy changes if it aligns with that goal.
Ms. Jackson said high school campuses are discussing having cell phone zones as positive reinforcement, where students could earn time in the cell phone zone if they adhere to campus rules and regulations.
"We'll always look for ways to improve our policies. We always need to address the need for electronic devices, and if we can find ways to utilize those in the classroom to further instruction, then we will do that," she said.