March 23, 2012

Cell Phones in Schools



*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on March 25, 2012

My 11 year-old son recently wrote a persuasive essay regarding the use of cell phones and iPods in school. I assumed his position would be that these devices should be allowed based on his being in favor of eliminating healthy food from the cafeteria, but he surprised me by taking the dissenting viewpoint and argued that cell phone and iPods would be distracting to students.

His essay, coupled with conversations I’ve had with School Resource Officers, has prompted some interesting discussions and spirited debates about the issue. Currently, there is a zero tolerance policy for cell phones being used in the high schools. Students may carry them but the phones must remain powered off within school hours. Those students who are caught using their phone during the school day receive a one day suspension. The ironic twist is that many kids caught texting are actually responding to a parent initiating the conversation.

This issue for me depends upon which hat I’m wearing.

Cell phones have evolved into a necessity for most of us. If I leave the house without it, you can bet that I’ll be turning around to go back for it. I like my kids having a means to communicate with me when they are at school to keep me informed of changing plans.

As a parent, I succumbed to getting my kids’ cell phones long before I said I would. The magic number for me was 13 and yet I bought them several years earlier in order to keep up with their ever-changing after school activities. I have come to rely on the text messages my kids send updating me when they need to be picked up from practices and rehearsals.

However, when I put on my police officer hat, I cannot help but to think of the impact cell phones might have in the event of a critical incident at school. Some of the most compelling evidence captured during the Columbine shooting came from an open cell phone line a student had during the incident. My perspective is a bit conflicted as it pertains to school emergencies.

On one hand, I like the idea that kids have cell phones at the ready should they need to report an incident to the police. During an emergency, the more information that can be relayed to our dispatchers allows for a more directed response by responding officers. However, there is a risk that too many people will call. My fear is that our dispatchers will have to sift through a large volume of incidental information to get to the facts that are most critical.

My viewpoints offered from my perspectives as a parent and as a police officer are not too dissimilar from one another and yet I must refer back to the wisdom of my son to add the voice of reason to this debate.

In his essay, he gave what I thought was the most compelling argument against cell phones in school. He thought they would distract kids throughout the day and may even lead to cheating should they decide to share test questions and answers via text. Furthermore, he empathized with teachers who might have to endure the disruption of a cell phone ringing in their classrooms. “It’s hard for kids’ to pay attention as it is”, he said. “A cell phone would make it worse.”

I won’t claim to be able to see things from an educator’s perspective but I think they might agree with young Jake. If I were trying to maintain a learning environment for my students, I would want as few distractions as possible and adding the temptation of a cell phone doesn’t seem to fit within the parameters of the over-arching goal.

The answer to this debate should be left to the experts – those we entrust to educate our children.

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