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Schools: District aligns cellphone policy with students' practice

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Cellphones will no longer have to be switched off and kept out of sight in Georgetown County schools under a new policy approved by the school board this week. They can be used with the approval of teachers.

District officials acknowledge the current policy is generally ignored. The proliferation of smartphones and their use by students to access information used in class prompted the change. So did the district’s plan to include online classes in its high school curriculum.

As recently as 2009, the school board considered a policy change that would have eliminated cellphones altogether, citing a survey that found 74 percent of parents and teachers supported a ban.

Board Member Pat DeLeone said she regularly sees students in the halls talking on cellphones when she visits the county’s four high schools. “And nothing is done,” she said. “It happens all the time.”

One teacher told her the current policy allows students to use the phones outside the classroom.

But that’s not the case, said Lindsay Anne Thompson, an attorney who is the district’s director of compliance.

Allowing students to use phones with the teacher’s permission “is kind of how we’re working it right now, even though it’s not policy,” Thompson said.

“It’s a real dilemma for us because everybody has a phone,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said. Parents give them to young children for security and older students use their phones for research, he said.

There have been times when students used their phones on school buses during emergencies, Dozier said. That’s a far cry from the 1990s when district policy required the phones to be locked in cars. They were viewed, like pagers, as tools of drug dealing. A Waccamaw High student’s phone was once confiscated and immersed in a bucket of water at a Georgetown High football game. The current policy was approved in 2007.

Although district policy still allows cellphones to be confiscated, “I don’t want their phone,” Dozier said. “They’re kind of expensive.”

School Board Member Richard Kerr said the requirement for teacher approval was reasonable.

“You always want to apply common sense,” School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said. “But common sense ain’t so common.” The policy change received the first of two readings by the board this week. The changes also set out student rights and responsibilities. Before Thompson went to work on the revision, the policy didn’t include student rights, which she drew from constitutional precedents.

One place students will be able to use their smartphones in the coming year is to access their e-mail through accounts provided by the school district.

The accounts aren’t just for staying in touch. “That’s the only way we can access Office 365,” said Patti Hammel, the district’s director of student performance.

The Microsoft software allows students to collaborate online and provides storage on the Internet.

“It’s not so much the e-mail as a place to save all their work,” Hammel said.

Providing the software and the e-mail accounts means the district has to revise its Internet policy. “We can’t make sure that every single thing that every child does is appropriate,” Thompson said. But the district will try to supervise use.

Elementary students will only be able to e-mail teachers. Middle school students can e-mail teachers and classmates. High school students will have full e-mail access.

Student accounts will be kept open three months after graduation to help with job and college applications, Thompson said.

Students who move or drop out will lose access to their district e-mail account.

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