By Guy Page
At least two Vermont school districts this fall will introduce bans on cell phone use by students during school hours — a seemingly common sense policy that hasn’t always worked well in other school districts.
The Montpelier school district (which includes Roxbury) has banned cell phone use for middle school students during school hours, the Associated Press reported: “The decision by officials at the Main Street Middle School was made because of concerns about distractions for students in class. It is also meant to address the broader issue of the impact of technology on social interaction.” It followed …an internal review and a district-wide discussion among administrators in the Montpelier-Roxbury Public Schools District. The new policy says that students would not be allowed access to their cell phones from 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Assistant Principal Matt Roy says ‘there’s absolutely no need for cell phones, educationally or socially, for the school day.’”
Last week’s County Courier reported that Missisquoi Valley Union (Swanton, Highgate, Franklin) middle and high schools also will ban cell phones.
It remains to be seen whether Montpelier and Missisquoi fare better with their cell phone bans than failed policies at Lamoille Valley Union and Peoples Academy, both in Lamoille County. In April 2018 the News & Citizen in Morrisville reported that both schools had rescinded their ban, which just wasn’t working:
“Six to eight years ago, the devices weren’t prevalent in schools, says Brian Schaffer, principal at Lamoille Union, but now, their use has “exploded.” Cell phones are used as calendars, note takers, recorders and music devices as well as a way to communicate among family members and peers. A blanket prohibition didn’t work, so, whether the device is a cell phone, laptop or school-issued iPad, principals and teachers are working to figure out how to grab students’ attention back.”
Burlington High School also repealed its cell phone ban, VT Digger reported in 2016. Teacher Ron McNeil is quoted in the story complained that the school had been “liberalizing” the ban until it finally dropped it completely:
“As a psychology teacher, Mr. MacNeil is well-informed of the neurological effects of cell phone use. He thinks using them is addictive and compulsive behavior. `This generation is addicted to instant gratification, instant information and instant contact,’ he said.”
The Rutland High School student handbook says that cell phones may be used “appropriately” and then outlines what appropriate looks like – i.e. not in class but okay in common areas, on vibrate at all times, etc..
Not that these policies always work very well. A January 25, 2019 letter from the principal at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, where a policy similar to Rutland’s is in place, bemoaned inappropriate use of students’ cell phones: “Our staff is reporting that cell phone use interferes with teaching and learning and has a negative impact on student relationships with both peers and adults. Sadly, inappropriate messages and harmful statements are sometimes exchanged among students using cell phones leading to significant stress, anxiety, and adult intervention.” The principal promised the school would crack down on existing regulations.
The problem apparently isn’t limited to American schoolchildren. France — in an act typical of that nation’s “top-down,” centralized system of governance — last December banned smartphone use during school hours by all schoolchildren 15 and under.
And back in Vermont, problems in schools caused by inappropriate use of cell phones aren’t limited to children. The Vermont Department of Education has disciplined school staff for inappropriate use of cell phones, according to an excel spreadsheet on its website. A teacher at Rice Memorial Union High School reportedly used his to photograph underneath girls’ skirts, and two other teachers (elsewhere in Vermont) engaged in appropriate communications with students.
As a regulatory environment, Vermont can be tough on unsafe/inappropriate use of cell phones. Our state has some of the strictest cell phone/driving laws in the nation. Vermont also has a “revenge porn” law banning nonconsensual e-distribution of sex-related photos. But so far, no-one in what many consider a “Montpelier knows best” legislature or educational bureaucracy has sought to regulate or ban cell phone use in all school districts.
As any parent knows — when you’re dealing with teenagers, sometimes you have to pick your battles.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.