The Alcoa school board is considering an update to its cellphone policy and school practices that could keep devices out of reach of students more often.
During a work session this month, board members and trustees discussed cellphone issues for more than an hour, acknowledging that the board’s current policy adopted there more than ten years ago does not correspond to what is happening today.
“If we want to have a policy, we have to follow it, or we have to change it,” said director Becky Stone.
Current Alcoa City Schools policy states that students may not use cell phones during class time unless they receive permission from the principal or designate. Alcoa High School allowed students to use their phones between lessons and during lunch.
“At that time, at that place, I feel quite comfortable with them using the cellphone,” said AHS director Caleb Tipton, noting that the practice predated his successor to Stone as as an administrator there in 2020.
“I don’t like seeing them in classrooms,” Tipton said. ACS students now all have access to a Chromebook computer as part of the AlcoaConnects program, so they generally shouldn’t need any other devices for teaching.
He compared giving students designated times to use their phones to giving them a break. “It’s the world they live in,” he said.
During the discussion, forum member Brandy Bledsoe said, “If you suddenly go to high school and you tell them there’s no cell phone from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., everything you know will rage.”
“When a child says he’s addicted to his cell phone, that’s not hyperbole; they really are,” Tipton said, referring to comments by author Simon Sinek.
In 2016 on Inside Quest, for example, Sinek discussed how cellphone use releases dopamine, the same neurotransmitter released when people smoke, drink and gamble.
“We have age restrictions on smoking, gambling and alcohol, and we have no age restrictions on social media and cellphones,” Sinek said. He goes on to compare giving teens experiencing the stress of adolescence cell phones to opening a booze cellar for them. He argues that access to cell phones and social media inhibits their long-term ability to develop meaningful relationships. In times of stress, Sinek said, instead of turning to a person, they turn to a device.
During Alcoa’s work session, middle school principal Tony Spears, a former high school vice-principal, said giving students designated times to use their phones felt like a “pressure release”.
“It used to be that you could smoke at school, when I went to school,” Spears said. “They let you go out in the smoking area between classes and smoke and come back. It was addiction; this cell phone is almost the same kind of addiction. You let them go out and check their messages or do whatever they are doing. I don’t know if that’s the right answer or not.
Alcoa Middle School principal Chelsi Long has likened student use of cellphones to an escape from real life. “Children are so scared to live in their own lives that they want to live in other people’s lives through this cellphone,” she said.
Do not touch?
Students at Alcoa High School don’t just use phones during breaks, according to Bledsoe, who notes when she gets text messages from her daughter. “She’s in the middle of the class,” Bledsoe said. “She sends me videos.”
The council member also said that the students go to the bathroom and text each other the test answers. “It happens every day, all day,” Bledsoe said.
“I’m not saying it doesn’t happen… It probably does,” Tipton said, but he said it’s up to teachers to tighten up how they enforce the policy. “It’s a disruption in your classroom if you decide to allow it to be one,” he said.
Tipton compared students who put away their cellphones before classes start to the business world, where workers can lose their jobs if they’re on the phone. Stone noted that when she joined local leaders visiting Smith & Wesson facilities last year, to speak to workers who might move here, their phones had to be locked.
While some teachers have phone holders in classrooms for students to place their devices before class begins, others worry about liability if a phone is broken. During a discussion about whether families should sign liability waivers if students bring devices onto campus, council attorney John Owings said it was not unclear if it would protect the schools in the event of a lawsuit, “Better to have it in there than not.
Bledsoe has indicated that she prefers having the phones further away than the backpacks of the students. “If it’s not physically out of their body, they’re going to be in it; I promise you that,” Bledsoe said.
“My daughter is 16 and she will literally have her face glued to this phone unless you stop her,” she said.
Board member Mike Brown, who teaches at Webb Private School, said he noted the impact of students placing phones in a holder when entering the classroom, as the school has temporarily halted practice during COVID-19 precautions.
When the students aren’t on the phone, Brown says he walks into a louder classroom, but he calls it “good noise” because the students are talking to each other. The teacher said it also gave him an informal opportunity to learn more about his students.
Bledsoe said that instead of texting friends sitting next to them in the commons during lunch, “these kids have to flip those phones on and communicate with their friends face to face.”
Board members also raised the issue of not knowing what students are listening to on their phones.
“We have these kids for a short time, and it’s our job to try to teach them how to communicate as adults and not get their heads stuck in those phones 24/7” , Bledsoe said.
Administrators said cell phones rarely disrupt the school day. The elementary and middle school principals said they weren’t a problem in those schools.
Alcoa Middle School allows students to use cell phones before school, as some arrive an hour before class begins. “They’re off and out from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.,” Long told the board, and students aren’t allowed to use headphones or headphones as a safety precaution.
By mid-November, AMS had recorded 17 violations of the policy. At the first offence, the school calls the parents, who must then come to the school. Repeat offenders must leave their phones on the vice principal’s desk during the school day, and Long said there were about five at the end of last school year.
Tipton said AHS has received 22 disciplinary dismissals since July for cellphones, mostly for not putting the phones away when told to. A few incidents involving taping and posting to social media have resulted in out-of-school suspensions.
Once or twice a year, he said, something with a cellphone will disrupt the school day, and that usually involves something that happened off campus. Stone gave the example of students recording a fight in the park the night before and posting it online, then students calling their classmates when they saw the recording on their phones during lunch.
During the discussion, administrators noted the need for some students to have access to cell phones for physical needs, such as glucometers or special education adaptations.
Principals also noted that some parents feel the need to be able to contact their child directly, rather than making a call to the school office. “Everyone in this room went to school — and we survived — without cellphones,” said Alcoa elementary director Jarrod Pendergraft.
Tipton said during the working session, “Whatever the board decides, I’m going to support it.”
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