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Area school districts debate cellphone policies

| Thursday, June 19, 2014, 7:29 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
While cell phone use is common at home for teenagers and pre-teens, including Founders Hall Middle School seventh-graders Andy Mellinger of White Oak and Seth Olinsky of McKeesport, regulations are more strict when they're in school. McKeesport Area, like many other districts, prohibits the use of electronic devices in school.

Deciding when a child is old enough to handle the responsibility of having his or her own cellphone or similar electronic device is a tough decision that parents and guardians have to make in the modern digital age.

But whether a child is 6 or 16 when he or she first gets a phone, the matter of how they handle that device in school is one that districts wrestle with on an ongoing basis.

In Pennsylvania, the issue is primarily addressed at the local level with districts setting policy. For the most part, the use of such devices is banned during the school day. Some districts ban possession of such devices altogether while others allow students to bring them to school as long as they remain out of sight during the regular school day.

Steel Valley School District officials are examining a policy already on the books that allows students to bring devices to school but requires the devices be turned over to school officials. A district committee recently discussed allowing students in secondary grades to stow their devices in their lockers rather than check them in each morning.

“It's a hard decision,” said Steel Valley school board president Donna Kiefer, who serves on the committee examining the policy. Kiefer said she understands the safety concerns of guardians who want to maintain an open line of communication with their children in the event of emergencies — noting her own granddaughter, a third-grader in the district, carries a prepaid cellphone for that reason – but knows cellphones can cause distractions in the classroom and open the door to other disciplinary problems including privacy violations and bullying.

“I'm undecided,” Kiefer said.

During the committee meeting, Steel Valley Superintendent Edward Wehrer said the district is considering the change because so many students are violating the current policy.

“It promotes unethical decision making by our students,” he said.

District officials said there were 168 cellphone violations this year at the high school.

Trevon Murtaza, who just finished his sophomore year, admits he violated the policy.

Rather than leaving his phone with school officials in the morning, he said, “I snuck it in.”

“I just put it in my binder,” Trevon said. “I only got caught twice.”

For the second offense, Trevon said he was assigned a day of in-school suspension. He'll be moving to a new district for the 2014-15 school year and said his reason for violating the policy was, “I always felt it was more secure with me than with the school.”

District officials said at least one phone belonging to a student had to be replaced this year.

That expense and the ongoing cost of dedicating time and manpower to handling the phones at the beginning and end of the day are among the reasons for considering a policy change.

Andy Christ, a policy consultant for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said there is a “growing movement to stop trying to prohibit the possession and use” of cellphones.

The state boards association has a policy template that many member districts have adopted and modified to suit their particular needs, he said. He said districts differ on where they will permit cellphones – for example, some allow usage in the cafeteria and in hallways – and when they may be used.

Statewide, he said, “We really run the gamut there between what policies allow and what they don't allow.”

The PSBA's policy prohibits the use of devices in locker rooms, health areas and places where privacy is an issue. Christ said consequences for violating cellphone polices can range from detention to suspension or refer to local law enforcement if it rises to a criminal offense.

Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Fritz Fekete said the teachers union doesn't take a stance for or against cellphones in schools.

“We fully recognize that these devices are little computers. There are many education apps that can be incorporated into classroom use. If they can be incorporated into the classroom, that's fantastic,” he said.

Yet, he said, cellphones have the potential to be disruptive and there have been instances where they've been used negatively toward teachers.

“There is a need for a clear policy to protect teachers from harassment and bullying,” he said. Fekete said he thinks institutional resistance to cellphones will decrease as younger teachers enter the classroom.

For now, the policy in many schools remains one of “keep it out of sight.”

“If it's out in the hallway, we're taking it,” is how West Mifflin Area School District Superintendent Dan Castagna described his district's policy. He said students can carry devices or keep them in their lockers but they will be confiscated if seen or heard during the school day.

“You're never going to keep them out of the buildings,” Castagna said. “They're too much a part of our culture.”

Like many districts, West Mifflin Area has a graduated system of punishment for offenders. The first time a student is caught with a cellphone, it is taken until the end of the day. On the second offense, a parent must retrieve the phone from the school. The district keeps the phone the third time a student is caught.

Castagna said the threat of confiscation is enough to deter a lot of students from using their devices.

“They don't want their phone taken,” he said. “That's the worst punishment in the world. They'd rather be suspended than have their phone taken from them.”

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or

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