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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Public Schools to ban cellphone use in classrooms

Glover Middle School sixth-grader Michael Parnell, 12, spends some of his lunchtime break looking at his cellphone in June. Next year, the school administration will ban the use of cellphones during the school day.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane Public Schools will ban cellphone use in classrooms next year.

The Spokane School Board on Wednesday reviewed its districtwide procedure detailing student cellphone use, advising the district to adopt a more stringent and comprehensive policy for use in classrooms.

The district plans to implement the proposal before school starts in September, Superintendent Adam Swinyard said.

“I just really want to help the next generation as much as possible to have healthy boundaries,” board President Nikki Otero Lockwood said. “In doing this, we’re creating healthy boundaries, I believe.”

The proposed additions outline when students at each school level can use their mobile devices in school, with exceptions in each case for emergencies and administrator approval.

In high school, pupils will be barred from using their phones in classrooms, but still permitted during lunch, between class periods and before or after school.

Middle schoolers wouldn’t be allowed to use their phones during school hours, except during their lunch breaks, per the draft, though the board recommended prohibiting lunchtime use.

Elementary schools would impose the strictest procedures, only permitting use before and after school.

The proposal offers districtwide consistency on cellphone expectations, something that had previously been left up to schools to determine. Often, schools leave policies up to the discretion of teachers, creating a policy patchwork in classes and schools.

“It’s really important that there’s consistency, not just between schools, but also really important that there is consistency inside of schools so that one teacher isn’t approaching it one way and then the other teacher across the hall is doing something different,” Swinyard said in a June news conference. “In general, we really want the phones turned off and put away at elementary and middle school.”

High schools have a role to play, Swinyard said, in teaching their pupils when it is appropriate to use their devices.

The district surveyed its students, staff and families about the draft. Of the roughly 700 students who responded, 170 were in favor of the restriction, calling phones a distraction to their learning. The rest were less enthusiastic, said Scott Kerwein, director of student success.

The proposal restricts more than just cellphones, applying to gaming devices and smart watches, and any portable electronic device that can send messages, make calls, play games or videos.

The proposal also outlines procedures if a student is caught in violation of the policy. At their first offense, a student is to be reminded of the policy. Any future times they’re caught using their phone during class, staff would confiscate the device and return it at the end of the day. The school would notify parents and may hold a meeting if “excessive offenses continue.”

Families should expect communication from the district over how this policy change will look at their school and guidance toward adjusting, Swinyard said.

Cellphone restrictions have been growing in popularity across the nation, with conversations at school, district and state levels. Some Spokane-area schools are tightening their policies.

The 740-student Reardan-Edwall school district last year tightened its policy by only allowing use during lunch and a midmorning break in the high school.

Salk and Flett middle schools in Spokane have already implemented more restrictive policies than the district’s proposal. Salk principals decided to implement last September a full school prohibition of use, including during lunches and between class periods.

Staff found the year to be a “marked change” in their school absent of devices, with less discipline and more engagement in class. By the end of the school year, many students had adjusted to the policy and found they built deeper connections with their peers, especially at lunchtime.

Glover Middle School will adopt a similar restriction to Salk, principals decided.

Middle school lunches were the crux of the board’s conversation Wednesday. Most of the adult respondents to the survey suggested prohibiting cellphone use during lunch, contrary to the district’s draft. Board members advised they shouldn’t be permitted during lunch.

“It feels like if we’re ever going to get to a situation where a high school lunch can be conversations and not half the time on the phones, we have to start in middle school,” board member Mike Wiser said.

Swinyard predicts restricting phone use will be a “turbulent” transition with “ebbs and flows” as students, staff and families acclimate to the changes.

He acknowledged the policy presents some “give and take.” Many educators permit student phone use to supplement their academics, in class trivia games like Kahoot, to quickly look up information or check their grades or assignments, many of which are online.

The district supplies laptops to each student, but surveyed students said they’re unreliable and not as efficient as their phones, which present “educational technology opportunities,” Swinyard said.

“We’re going to give up some of that, because we’re in a battle of loss of engagement by having it in their hands,” Swinyard said.

“We’re making a calculated choice weighing the benefits and the downsides.”