Do cellphones belong in Wichita classrooms?

West High students weigh in on school's cellphone policy

Students at Wichita West High School talk about the use of smartphones at school and how they would feel if USD 259 made rules regarding phones more strict. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)
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Students at Wichita West High School talk about the use of smartphones at school and how they would feel if USD 259 made rules regarding phones more strict. (Travis Heying/The Wichita Eagle)

West High School junior Hannah Hathaway admits it:

“I can’t live without my phone,” she says. “It’s a way for me to contact my friends, my family, and just get on social media when I’m bored.

“If I go a couple hours without it I kind of get upset, I guess.”

That includes during the school day. Hannah, 16, says she follows the rules about cellphones in class, putting hers away when teachers say to, but lunch hour, passing periods and classroom downtime are spent texting, SnapChatting, checking Twitter or sending quick updates to her mom or brother.

“I feel like banning phones wouldn’t be the brightest thing,” she said. “They’re just a part of our lives.”

The proliferation of cellphones in school has skyrocketed in the past few years. According to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of teens aged 13-17 have or have access to a smartphone, 92 percent of teens use the internet via a mobile device daily, and teenagers send between 30 and 40 texts a day, on average.

The Wichita school district’s policy on pupil behavior allows students to carry cellphones and other electronic devices in school, but says they “must be kept out of sight and powered off during the school day.”

Steve Wentz, president of the Wichita teachers union, recently urged school board members to reconsider and clarify the policy, saying cellphones often are a source of discipline problems in schools.

“It’s really clear (in the policy) that there’s not supposed to be any cellphone use, period. We know that’s not happening,” Wentz said.

“I just think there needs to be some clarification on it and at the very least a really frank discussion about responsible use of cellular devices.”

Smartphone use in schools

Walk around any Wichita-area high school these days – and many middle schools – and you’ll see students tapping away on cellphones or listening to music through ear buds.

More and more, students use smartphones to look up information or to snap photos of notes, assignments or due dates. cellphones are alarm clocks, watches, calendars and calculators. Students text parents to coordinate rides or sibling pick-ups.

Brian White, a history teacher at East High School in Wichita, said cellphones are so commonplace that they’re less of a problem than they used to be.

“There’s kind of the expectation that all students have them now,” White said. “A few years ago they really were bigger distractions because they were so new and so novel.

“Now it’s just kind of passe … Everybody knows you have a phone, so there’s no need to have it out or show it off. Usually if you have it out, it’s because you’re using it for something.”

In addition to the district policy, each Wichita high school sets its own guidelines on cellphone use, usually allowing students to use phones before and after school, between classes and during lunch.

Classroom rules vary

Within classrooms, most schools leave cellphone use to a teacher’s discretion. Students at West High said rules vary depending on the teacher or what’s happening in class.

Some teachers ban phones altogether, directing students to keep them in backpacks at all times. Others allow them for certain purposes or while students are working independently.

“One of my teachers last year said, ‘I’m old-school. In my day and age we didn’t have phones, so I don’t see the point of you guys having a phone during our class period,’” said Kyara Caceres, 17.

“If you had a phone out in class, he would take your phone. There was no warning, no nothing. … It was just sad.”

Senior Temani Hunley said she thinks West High’s current cellphone policy is “a little bit stricter than it should be.” High schools should be treated like most workplaces, she said, where people can check phones whenever it’s convenient.

“If phones are distracting you from doing your work, I think it’s just their choice that they’re being distracted,” Temani said. “It’s not necessarily the phone’s fault.”

Gil Alvarez, Wichita’s assistant superintendent of secondary schools, said each teacher or school may handle cellphones a little differently, but flexibility is key.

“As we evolve with electronics and our phones, sometimes it definitely becomes a learning tool,” said Alvarez, a former high school principal. “We’re not going to say that there is no use, but we really leave that up to the teacher.”

White, the East High teacher, said he allows students to be on their phones or listen to music when they’re done with assignments or working independently. He also lets students take pictures of things to aid their note-taking.

“I think that’s perfectly fine. It’s a great way to use the phone as something that can be really helpful,” he said.

“I think trying to fight it is silly, because it’s here and it’s going to be here,” he said. “It’s better to embrace it and figure out how to use it to our benefit.”

Safety concerns

Several Wichita parents said they like their children to have cellphones at school for safety reasons. In the event of a school shooting or other emergency, they said, students should be able to call 911 and relay information to parents or law enforcement.

But some said they don’t want kids on their phones during class.

“Why are we not just collecting them at the door and giving them back at the end of the class period?” said Teajai Kimsey, whose 15-year-old daughter, Crystal, attends Northwest High School in Wichita.

“I want her to be able to contact me. But on the other hand, I don’t think it’s wise for them to be on the phone all the time, not paying attention to what the teacher is trying to teach.”

Some teachers employ “cellphone hotels” or “cellphone daycare” – hanging shoe organizers with numbered pockets that double as charging stations where students can dock their phones at the start of class. District leaders said that method could raise liability concerns, though, if phones get damaged or misplaced.

“Part of the problem is, we don’t want to be responsible for electronic devices,” said Alvarez, the assistant superintendent.

“If we start putting them in boxes and something happens to the phone, the school or the teacher could get blamed for it. We don’t want that to happen.”

Distraction or benefit?

White, who teaches in East High’s International Baccalaureate program, said he doesn’t think the current district policy is inconsistent or misleading.

As with any classroom rule – where kids sit, whether they can chew gum in class, when they’re allowed to talk or leave the room – teachers just have to be clear and consistent with their rules about cellphones, he said.

“A phone can be a distraction just like a novel can be a distraction, or a magazine or anything else,” White said. “This is just another thing that I think we have to adapt to.

“In order for me to do my job effectively, I have to make sure that those things that could be a distraction are eliminated, and those things that could be beneficial are utilized effectively. And I think a phone can be both.

“As long as you’re monitoring things and managing your classroom the best way you can, I think phones are more of a benefit than a detriment overall.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias: 316-268-6567, @suzannetobias