No. Smithfield School Committee considering partial ban on cell phones

8th-grader Austin Silvia speaks before the School Committee.

NORTH SMITHFIELD – The devices are distracting in classrooms, but they have their purpose, and studies have shown that students become very anxious when you take them away.

The North Smithfield School Committee took up the subject of cell phones in classrooms this week, debating changes to the current policy, which allows students to bring personal devices to school as long as they do not “disrupt the educational process.”

The policy notes that individual schools and teachers may impose additional restrictions.

Committee member Christine Charest brought up the issue at the board’s meeting this week, saying that the district’s policy should be revisited.

“I’ve been speaking with some of the teachers in our district who are very concerned that children are not paying attention in class because they’re looking at their cell phones,” said Charest. “It’s disruptive to teaching. It’s disruptive to those around them.”

Charest pointed to a recent Wall Street Journal article, which notes that schools that took away student phones are now treating the kids for separation anxiety.

The article documents how some teachers are dealing with the issue, with methods that include rewarding students willing to part with their devices during class, or placing charging stations in the back of classrooms.

“I have a very strong opinion that we need to go back to teaching and not policing,” said Charest. “Our teachers need to be able to teach.”

School Committee member Christine Charest, at left, speaks about the district’s cell phone policy.

Supt. Michael St. Jean asked Charest how she would approach the problem of parents wanting to be able to reach their children in case of emergencies.

Charest noted that if there is an emergency, it’s “easy enough” to contact the school office.

Austin Silvia, a North Smithfield 8th grader present for Tuesday night’s meeting, was asked to weigh in. St. Jean noted that Silvia needed to witness  a debate at a municipal meeting as part of his merit badge, and many of his comments on the issue were for the scout’s benefit.

“I see how phones can be a bad thing in schools,” said Silvia, noting that students should just leave the devices in their bags, or not take them out of their pockets during class. Silvia noted that recently, he accidentally called his father during school, leaving him a four minute voicemail of his computer science class.

Charest pointed to other instances of students texting parents during the school day, noting that such conversations could wait until the kids get home.

“What I find frustrating about the whole cell phone debate is that this device is the most powerful communication, computing tool that anyone can ever have,” said St. Jean.  “I would love to see us able to leverage this power – this device – as a powerful educational tool rather than just ban it outright. There has to be a balance, I would think.”

Charest pointed out the the district already pays for Chromebooks for that purpose.

“They should have all the access they need on those devices without bringing in their own,” she said, noting that unlike cell phones, the Chromebooks block any sites that shouldn’t be reached. “How do you control where the kids are on their personal devices?”

School officials acknowledged that the problem doesn’t end with phones, pointing to devices such as Apple watches.

“Other things are going to take its place,” Committee member Peg Votta said of a potential ban on phones. “Something bigger and better is going to come up.”

“It’s the Google chip in the base of the brain,” joked St. Jean.

“Cell phones do cause anxiety,” agreed Committee Chairman James Lombardi. “You have instant gratification. You have excitement on the phone. Then you get into the classroom- it’s distracting.”

“I think we do need a policy,” Lombardi said.

St. Jean, who is well-known for his use of technology and his unofficial status as the district photographer, admitted that he was feeling the urge to check his Instagram while the chairman was speaking.

“There’s that powerful draw of the cell phone,” St. Jean said. “There are pros and cons to this. We have students who can use them responsibly. I don’t know if it should be an outright ban. There’s a time, and a purpose, and a place for these amazing devices.”

School Committee member William Connell noted that phones can also be used as a tool for bullying.

“It’s situational specific, and school specific,” Connell said, suggesting that others in the district should have a chance to weigh in. “I’d like to see them come to us with a proposal. I think our students and our teachers can come up with the best policy that can work for North Smithfield.”

“The students, I think, would have some very strong opinions and ideas,” Connell said.

St. Jean said the topic will be placed on the agenda for the School Committee’s next meeting for review, discussion and recommendations.

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