Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: Classroom is no place for cellphones; SC Legislature should ban them

Texting Student

South Carolina should ban cell phone use in school classrooms. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

South Carolina got a well-deserved black eye after a Richland County sheriff’s deputy dumped a high school student out of her desk and slid her across the floor when she refused to hand over her cellphone.

Fortunately, the deputy was fired, the criminal charge he brought against the student was dismissed, the state Board of Education told schools to stop using police to help enforce school discipline, and the Legislature abolished the ridiculously broad “disturbing schools” law that made it a crime for a student to simply sass a teacher, let alone refuse to hand over a cellphone.

Those were all good changes, which helped our state step back from the counterproductive practice of sending teens to jail for behavior that should merely result in a trip to the principal’s office.

But the fact that a deputy showed awful judgment and our state had a bad law that should have been repealed years earlier and Spring Valley High School — and far too many other schools — had bad procedures for dealing with discipline problems doesn’t mean it’s OK for students to use their phones in class.

And nearly five years after the Spring Valley incident, teachers say students are using their phones in class more than ever — too often with few if any consequences.

So it was good to see Gov. Henry McMaster draw attention to the problem in his executive budget. We’re just not sure that his proposal by itself will lead to the changes that our teachers — and our students, whether they realize it or not — need.

The governor’s budget would withhold some state funding from school districts that don’t have policies in place dealing with student cellphone use during instructional time. But it doesn’t specify what district policies have to entail — it even allows the districts to define “instructional time” however they want — and it doesn’t address enforcement.

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And the kicker: The state Department of Education reports that all the districts already have student phone policies, and most of them ban cellphone use during instructional time. Of course, “most” isn’t all, and apparently even some of the strong policies aren’t enforced very well.

Nor would the governor’s proposal change the big new problem that’s driving school officials crazy: sexting. Some administrators have interpreted a state regulation as prohibiting them from calling the police when a student sends nude pictures of herself to her boyfriend, who then shares them with his friends (and yes, it can work the other way around, but rarely does), even though that’s clearly a crime that needs to be handled by police.

It’s possible that the State Board of Education could clear up the sexting problem, and it should. And the budget might turn out to be a good enforcement tool to crack down on run-of-the-mill cellphone use — if it enforced a state law that clearly banned phone use during instructional time.

Even administrators who want to crack down can be hesitant to do that because of the pushback they know they’d get if they did what needs to be done: Confiscate the phones of students who use them during class — and for longer than a day if they do that repeatedly. We suspect that some school administrators would welcome the opportunity to tell parents that they have no choice under state law.

There are ways this can be done that aren’t terribly heavy-handed, and legislators would do well to consult first with teachers and school administrators who would have to enforce the law before they write a bill. But then they should pass a law that outlaws phones in class and provides a tough enforcement policy, to make it easier for teachers to teach, and to protect the rights of all the students who want to learn.

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