Cell phone usage becomes hot topic with school board

In this day when electronic conveniences are not only a luxury, the are absolute necessities, it's no wonder it was just a matter of time before the school board would be faced with the inevitable task of dealing with cell phone issues in schools.

The policy committee of the Tangipahoa Parish School board convened on Tuesday, March 10 to deal with these very issues. Members of the committee in attendance were Chairman Rose Dominguez, Sandra Bailey-Simmons, Ann Smith and Sonya Traylor.

To date, the school board has no "blanket" policy regarding cell phone usage. Each middle and high school handles cell phone situations as they occur according to their own policy, set by school administration.

To get a feel for what each school faces day to day regarding cell phone issues, Assistant Superintendent Thomas Bellavia sent out an anonymous survey to 35 school principals and administrators regarding cell phone usage by students. The results, though not surprising, seem to typically reflect what other area parishes such as St. Tammany and Washington have dealt with. When asked whether or not students should be allowed to use cell phones during the regular school day at non-instructional times, 34 of the 35 administrators responded "yes", with only one responding "no." Nineteen of the schools reported dealing with cellphone issues less than five times a week, with seven schools reporting cell phone related office offenses from 10 to 20 times a week.

Penalties imposed for a cell phone being seen, heard or used range from warnings and ISSP for first offenses; one day out of school suspension to phone call to parent for second offense; and up to three days out of school suspension for the third offense. The most common consequence for a cell phone related offense seems to be to simply confiscate the phone from the student, to have it picked up at a later time by a parent or guardian. While this may seem the most reasonable and easy solution, a specific and well planned policy should be in place, to avoid situations such as the law suit recently filed by a St. Tammany School System student, who claims she was assaulted by school officials as well as local law enforcement after refusing to relinquish her cell phone. When asked if the School System should have a policy in place which prohibits students to have a cell phone in school at all, 26 of the 35 stated "yes." Comments by school administrators ranged from, "I really don't have a problem at my school, so I would hate to have a systemwide change forced upon me for no real reason;" to "I think we need a more specific policy for employee cell use." Some also stated that IPODs, as well as other electronic devices should be included in any new policies.

Many of the concerns educators have with cell phone use on campus are not only that they are distracting and ring during instructional times. Some of the most important issues are security issues. Issues such as camera phones used to video fights which end up being shown on the internet, issues of test security, texting for unauthorized persons to check them out of school, and sending messages to students at other schools which at times have escalated "fight situations."

Though the system has not had any major cell phone related issues to deal with to date, as board member Al Link stated, "we are fortunate not to have had these issues to deal with, but as cell phone usage increases, this will most likely become a "hot button" issue for this board and we need to be prepared with policies in place."

A spokesperson for the St. Tammany School Board office told this newspaper, there policy is "no cell phones are allowed on campus."

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