Are cell phones in class a problem?

BAR HARBOR — Students’ use of cell phones in class is either a significant problem at Mount Desert Island High School or it’s not much of a problem at all, depending on whom you talk to.

Principal Matt Haney doesn’t think it is. But at least a few members of the high school board feel differently.

The board discussed the issue at some length at their Jan. 13 meeting, having started the conversation in December.

“I’ve got high school teachers messaging me all the time [saying it is] an interruption in the classroom that is so detrimental,” board member Marie Yarborough said. “I feel we need to think about how it is affecting all of our kids.”

Yarborough said one teacher, speaking of students using cell phones in class, told her, “The interruption in learning is insane.”

The high school doesn’t have a policy on the use of cell phones by students, but Haney said there is an expectation that students will not use their cell phones in class and that teachers are supposed to enforce that.

Haney said he had to “stick up for the teachers” in their handling of cell phone use.

“They are doing a better job than they are getting credit for right now,” he said. “Our teachers are really good at managing their classrooms. Is that 100 percent of every day and 100 percent of the teachers? No. But, with few exceptions, our kids are on task in their classes.

“I agree that cell phones are a distraction in our world,” Haney said. “Inside the walls of the classroom is the last place that that’s the major problem.”

Board member Kate Chaplin said she was surprised by a conversation she had with a teacher at the high school.
“She said she has actually seen a decrease in the use of phones during class time and in the free time,” Chaplin said. “She said it’s almost like the novelty is wearing off.”

Board members Ingrid Kachmar and Kristie Losquadro wondered aloud why some teachers don’t feel they can enforce the expectation that students not use their cell phones in class. Superintendent Marc Gousse said teachers should know they can go to Haney or their learning area leader if they need support or guidance.

Yarborough said some teachers probably haven’t done so because they don’t want to be seen as “a jerk or the heavy” and don’t want to get teachers who allow students to use cell phones in trouble.

But Dean of Curriculum Julie Keblinski said, “It’s really hard for us as administrators if we don’t know who needs help in how to engage with their students. I appreciate that they’re looking to others for help, but it’s really a conversation that we’re supposed to have with them and help them in being successful.”

School board members talked about whether there should be a specific policy on the use of cell phones in school, particularly in classrooms. The consensus seemed to be that there should not be. But they agreed that the school system’s policy committee should look at the issue.

Kachmar, the board chair, said the policy committee “needs to have a conversation about what we have in place and whether it needs to be tweaked, whether it seems everybody is doing what we want them to be doing relative to the expectations.”

Gousse said the school board could enact a complete ban on cell phones at school.

“But I think Matt [Haney] and I feel that it’s much more important to teach appropriate use of the technology and to model that. I think the greatest capacity for accountability comes from within.

“When you set expectations for people and they can be partners in that, I think that’s the more powerful way to do it.”

Board member Lilea Simis had said at the December meeting that she favored a complete ban on the use of cell phones at the high school. At last week’s meeting, she said she still feels that way, but she knows she is outnumbered and isn’t going to fight about it.

She told Haney that, although she doesn’t agree with him on the issue, “I want you to know I trust you as the captain of the ship and whatever works for this [school] community. I trust you and your decisions.”

Kachmar asked Haney if he would talk to the faculty about the school’s expectations regarding cell phone use in class.

“That would be redundant, but yes,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea to make sure they’re aware that the perception is out there that this is [a problem].”

Committee talks cell phones

The school system’s policy committee took up the issue of cell phone use in class at its meeting last Thursday.

“The expectation is that laptops and cell phones will be put away unless they have permission, and that if it becomes an issue, teachers can address it in a series of steps, starting with a verbal warning,” the high school’s Dean of Students Ian Braun told the committee.

If that doesn’t solve the problem, he said, “Teachers are authorized to collect the devices from the student and keep them until the end of class and then have a conversation about expectations with the student.”

Those expectations are spelled out in the high school’s faculty handbook, but not in the student handbook because it has been considered a classroom management issue. But high school administrators and policy committee members agreed that the expectations regarding cell phone use at school should be included in the student handbook so that students and their parents will be clear on what those expectations are.

Gousse asked Haney if it is fair to say the school can do a better job of articulating those expectations to students.

“No, it’s not fair to say [that],” Haney replied. “Students know what the expectations are in the classroom. We are a long way ahead of where we were two or three years ago. Teachers have gotten better at [regulating cell phone use]. I don’t see cell phones in the classroom being a major impediment to kids learning.”

School board and policy committee members Todd Graham and Jessica Stewart said the committee should hear from some high school students about the use of cell phones in class. Others agreed and said teachers also should be invited to weigh in.

Barb Neilly, principal of Conners Emerson School, suggested that students be given the opportunity to participate in an anonymous survey on the issue.

“My experience … is that they give you really good information,” she said.

School board and policy committee member Teresa King-LeClair agreed.

“Some students would not consider coming here and (meeting with) adults,” she said. “If they could do an anonymous survey, they may be more open to sharing from their hearts.”

The policy committee agreed to continue the discussion of cell phone use at the high school at future meetings.

A bill was introduced in the Legislature last February to direct the Maine Department of Education to adopt a rule prohibiting “the use of a cellular telephone by a student in a public school during classroom time, lunch breaks or transition time between classes.”

The bill died in the Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs.


Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. [email protected]
Dick Broom

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