Discipline for Using Cellphones in School on the Decline

More local students are carrying smartphones in school, but far fewer are getting suspended for it, according to records reviewed by the News4 I-Team.

State education department disciplinary reports reveal a fast decline in out-of-school suspensions for violations of cellphone policy, even though multiple local school districts prohibit the use of phones during class teaching and lessons.

The decreases in out-of-school suspension were particularly sharp in Maryland. Frederick County Public Schools reported a 50 percent decline in student suspensions for “personal electronic devices” between 2007 and 2013. Similar reductions were seen in Anne Arundel, Howard and Charles counties during the same time period. The number of suspensions remained flat in Montgomery County.

In Virginia, cellphone-related suspensions also dropped in Fairfax, Prince William and Manassas schools over a five-year period, according to the documents obtained by the News4 I-Team. Prince William County suspensions plummeted from 162 cases in 2007 to 75 cases in 2012.

Students nevertheless acknowledge phones are increasingly a distraction in classes. “Kids will have their phones right out on their desks in classes,” said Samantha Zambri, a junior at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. “People use them constantly.”

But policing the use of those phones is increasingly difficult, according to teachers, students and administrators who spoke with the News4 I-Team. In part, they said, because of the fast-rising number of users and ease of access to websites and social media services from devices used within school buildings.

Frederick County Public Schools and Prince George’s County Public Schools are considering revisions to school cellphone policies, potentially loosening restrictions on phone use by students.

But Prince George’s County schools, the only local school district in which phone-related suspensions rose significantly between 2007 and 2013, said administrators are increasingly concerned smartphone use is fueling an increase in theft and cyberbullying. “We're trying to maintain order, discipline and safety,” District spokesman Daryl Williams said. But district officials said Prince George’s County is lessening the penalty in 2014, to allow for in-school suspensions only.

Jesenia Jackson, a senior at Prince George’s County’s Henry Wise High School, said cellphone use is almost 100 percent among students. “You want to get on Facebook and Twitter,” Jackson said. “When your friends text you, you want to respond to them.”

Several teachers said they encourage students to use cellphones as part of some in-class lessons, as research tools during lectures or presentations. “There are uses,” Walt Whitman High School principal Alan Goodwin said. “It’s just a matter of making them part of strong learning.”

Zach Snyder, a Montgomery County high school senior, said his teachers are often forced to halt lessons and lectures to police misuse of phones. Far more often than two or three years ago, Snyder said. “Teachers have a reason to be suspicious,” he said. But several other students, speaking with the News4 I-Team, said misuse is too widespread to punish with out-of-school suspensions.

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