• The Smart Phone: Safe School Paradox
    By Michael Nitti, Superintendent


    If you have the opportunity to observe people walking out of an airplane and students leaving a secondary school, you will note that the experience is remarkably similar. In both cases, you will see a mass of departing humanity looking down at their assorted Blackberries or iPhones, desperately trying to avoid stumbling into each other as they gaze at their devices. 

    This parallel occurrence is not coincidence, of course, but is due to the fact that the inhabitants of both planes and schools are typically not allowed to use their “smart phones.” 

    As the accepted rationale behind the ban on planes is that cell phones could potentially interfere with the plane’s instruments, and since my primary focus on any flight is for the plane to return safely to the ground, I’ve never had much of a problem with
    that policy.

    However, in our schools today, the reason and purpose behind prohibiting student use of smart phones is becoming increasingly complex, conflicted and problematic. 

    A recent survey revealed that 75% of middle and high school students owned smart phones. As any adult who counts an iPhone as a beloved possession could testify, these phones are more than just tools of communication, they are a huge part of the students’ lives. Like us, kids use them to organize their calendars, responsibilities, and contacts. However, most adults are allowed to freely consult their phones at work in full view, using them to guide their day, but most schools require students to keep them under wraps. 

    What makes school restrictions even more interesting is that, unlike the vast majority of school contraband, kids’ phones have been provided by their parents. Now this is completely understandable in the modern era, where parents feel the need to be connected to their children and want the opportunity to instantaneously know where they are in times of emergency. Schools, of course, share this emphasis on student safety and security, but the very simple reality is that the presence and use of smart phones in schools creates issues and often causes problems. 

    We have already seen the smart phone emerge as a preferred tool of the school cyberbully. As in other examples of the modern Internet era, enhanced contact leads to increased conflict, and the flexibility of a smart phone allows for bullying that ranges from the subtle to the profound. Techniques range from the increasingly popular “Forward if you hate identified student” text messages to “trick texting,” where a student is duped into responding to messages that will be then be used to humiliate the child, to, of course, the directly insulting or taunting text messages. 

    This leads to a legitimate concern about cell phone use during the school day. It is difficult enough for school administrators to have to deal with the consequences of cell phone feuding or bullying that occurs after hours, but as the tiny devices give students the opportunity to engage each other within the school walls, it could seemingly lead to instantaneous conflict in the hallways or lunch room.

    One of the greatest concerns about the proliferation of student smart phone use is the protection of children’s privacy when students are all carrying around tiny cameras and voice recorders around their school. Pictures can be surreptitiously taken and exchanged instantaneously. A snapshot slyly taken in a locker room can end up posted on the Internet. “Sexting” pictures, videos and prose once exchanged within the confidential confines of a romantic relationship get released as revenge after an unpleasant youth breakup. 

    A student fight used to be surrounded by simple bystanders; now we are witness to kids holding up their phones, videoing the event. Children, by nature, do childish things. Mistakes and missteps previously took place in relative privacy. Now, with every child packing a camera, an incident or embarrassing event has the potential to “go viral,” and possibly ruin lives. 

    Then there are the overarching health and education concerns. Apparently, the AM radio under the pillow has been replaced by the cell phone, as the phenomenon known as “night texting” has children showing up for school exhausted and with early onset carpal tunnel syndrome. Teachers lament that texting habits carry over to their school work, as students don’t seem to realize that “2B r nt 2B,” is not acceptable for Shakespeare.  

    In closing, it appears that kids are the only ones who have a clear understanding of how smart phones fit into their lives. Parents and schools are still trying to figure this out, and determine a happy and harmonious marriage between technology, student safety, and positive school climate. Many schools are now tinkering with their once-Draconian policies to pilot cell phone “safe-use” zones and other initiatives that allow or even promote the use of technology. As they move forward with trepidation, awareness on the part of parents and cooperation by students would be most beneficial.