Dorchester 2 considers allowing cellphone use at high schools

(Left to right) Seniors Anna Robertson and Valeria Baldassarre along with her sister junior Federica Baldassarre check and txt on their phones as they walk through the hall at Wando High School on their way to a pep rally Tuesday December 3, 2013. Principals at three high schools in Dorchester District 2 presented a proposal that would allow students to use their phones before and after school, between classes and during their lunch period just as they do at Wando. Grace Beahm/Staff Buy this photo

High school students in Dorchester District 2 may soon be allowed to tweet, check their voice mail or try to reach the next level on Candy Crush during the school day, joining students at Mount Pleasant’s Wando High and a growing number of other schools.

The principals of Summerville, Fort Dorchester and Ashley Ridge high schools this week proposed a pilot program to the Dorchester 2 school board that would allow the use of electronic devices at school, although not during class, possibly as soon as January. The board will vote on the issue at its meeting Monday.

“We know about 99 percent of our students are carrying a cellphone,” said Summerville High Principal Kenny Farrell. “For us, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling knowing that we have a policy that we’re trying to enforce when we know all the kids are pretty much violating it.”

The current policy, written in 1991 and revised in 2008, bans “telecommunications devices” on school property during the school day, and calls for them to be confiscated. A $25 fine must be paid and the phones have to be picked up by a parent.

Charleston and Berkeley counties also ban the use of electronic devices during the day. Their policies call for the devices to be confiscated and retrieved by a parent.

Dorchester’s proposed policy is based on a program Wando started last year that allows devices to be used before and after school, during class changes, and during lunch.

“Our logic was, as adults we need to model what we expect our kids to do,” said Wando Principal Lucy Beckham. “If you sent me to a meeting away from the office all day and expected me never to check my phone for anything, I would have to find a way to sneak and do it, and that’s what we were seeing our kids do. Telling everybody they can’t touch their phone eight hours a day wasn’t working.”

In addition, a teacher pointed out that many teens use their phones as a watch, she said.

“He said, ‘Between classes they’re walking down the hall and they’re pulling out their cellphone to check the time and we’re fussing at them for using their cellphone, but really, it’s their clock,’” Beckham said. “It was a constant issue that was absorbing administrative time and causing a lot of frustration for students and teachers.”

The new policy is much better, she said.

“Do they still have their phones out when they’re not supposed to? Yes, but they did before,” she said. “The policy change doesn’t make it happen more or less.”

Garrett Academy of Technology in Charleston also has a policy allowing cellphone use in the cafeteria, gym and courtyards before and after school and during lunch.

The policy has cut down on noise in the hallways, tardiness and disruptions during the day when students and parents need to communicate, she said.

It also gives parents a sense of comfort knowing they can get in touch with their child, Farrell said.

“They want to give their child a cellphone for safety reasons, but this is the policy that we have,” Farrell said. “It really puts us in a bind. We are faced many times a week with parents who tell us, ‘I told my kid to take his cellphone and use it,’ and the kids outright refuse to give it to us. They say, ‘My parents said not to give it to you and I’m not going to get in trouble.’ ”

He also said some students bring “dummy phones” that they give up when caught, instead of their working phone.

In writing their proposal, Farrell, Ashley Ridge Principal Karen Radcliffe and Fort Dorchester Principal Bert Postell researched policies in other districts and found that cellphone use is becoming more acceptable. Wando allows teachers to use devices in the classroom at their discretion, but Dorchester 2 does not plan to do that.

“We also have very strict guidelines about use — what happens if it comes out during class, what happens if it’s used inappropriately,” Postell said. “We thought of all those things.”

Like Wando and Garrett, the Dorchester 2 proposal spells out penalties for unauthorized use, which range from in-school suspension to loss of parking privileges or extracurricular activities.

Dorchester officials said the policy is step toward “BYOD,” Bring Your Own Device.

“It’s the perfect lead-in,” said Dorchester 2 school board Chairwoman Gail Hughes. “Maybe we can get all the small issues worked out during this trial period before we get to BYOD, which is obviously what we’re working toward.”

The principals said they will make it clear to students that the policy is on a trial basis.

“We want them to know that this is a trial opportunity,” Radcliffe said. “If it works well, maybe then we can look at a policy change.”

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.

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