Saturday, July 20, 2024

Parents cite safety concerns with Brunswick Schools pilot cellphone program

Brunswick County School’s moves forward in phone free school initiative with Yondr pouches pilot. (Pexels/Katerina Holmes)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — After exploring several options, the school board is now one step closer to implementing a phone-free school policy. Tuesday, Brunswick County School Board opted to carry out a pilot program using Yondr pouches. 

READ MORE: Brunswick County Schools is looking to beef up cellphone policy

But some parents have concerns about the system, particularly in that it will cut off communication when needed. Michelle Westenbroek, a parent and alumna of Brunswick County Schools, says in the case of an emergency, she fears her children would be unable to call for help.

“Is it worth the gamble with our kids’ lives if not having access to their phones could save their life or other’s in an emergency?” she told Port City Daily. “I don’t think so.” 

Yondr pouches securely store student cellphones during the instructional day — magnetically locking them in a pouch that the student would carry on them and unlock at free-standing bases at the end of the school day. Students with medical needs can use Yondr pouches secured with a velcro lock, for easy access as needed. 

The goal of implementing a new system is to alleviate the amount of distractions cell phones cause in the classroom. 

Westenbroek says she agrees phone access impairs learning, but this solution may be drastic: “I feel like it was a very rushed decision without considering other options.”

Yondr presented to the board May 21, but school board member Steve Gainey said at the meeting he’s been researching Yondr since he joined the board two years ago. 

School board member Steve Barger said the district considered two other options. One, similar to Yondr, involved using manila envelopes to store students’ phones. These would be collected at the beginning of class and returned at the end, before students reached the hallway. However, Barger noted this option wasn’t as favorable because most behavioral issues occur in the hallway. Also, the district did not want to make teachers liable for handling student cell phones.

The second option involved students placing their phones in a file card holder when they walked into the classroom; however, the security of the device still poses an issue as it would leave a question of responsibility if a device was stolen or damaged.   

The district did a survey to gauge student use in classrooms last fall, with nearly 400 teachers and additional administration in middle and high schools petitioned. 

Administrators were asked about the average amount of instructional time teachers lose per class period due to enforcing policies on student cell phone use, a third said anywhere from 5 and 10 minutes, with 13% indicating 15 minutes.

Parent reservations is something the board anticipated as they began discussing strengthening its current policy. Currently, it allows students to bring devices to school, as long as they are not activated, used, or displayed during instructional hours, unless otherwise stated. 

Half the administrators answered in the survey they think a policy update should happen.

During the meeting, Superintendent Dale Cole said he expected the primary objections to surround phone access during emergency situations.

“There’s a big difference between feelings and research,” he told the board. 

Cole cited research that students who use cellphones during emergency situations, such as an active shooter scenario, are at greater risks of danger. Students might prioritize following parental instructions over those of law enforcement and school administration. Additionally, he highlighted that students’ attention could be diverted from critical directives. 

“In situations like that, we need to have very clear, quick and concise communication with students, and follow our emergency procedures,” he said during the meeting. “It’s actually better and safer for everyone involved, if we can focus on that.” 

Board member and chair Steven Barger wants parents to know the goal is not to block communication between parents and students. If a parent needs to relay a message to a student, he said they would still be able to do so by calling the school office. 

Barger, along with other board members, said phones are a significant distraction to students, often serving as a platform for bullying, coordinating fights in the hallways or bathrooms, browsing TikTok videos, and texting. 

Bullying was also addressed in the survey. When asked if administrators have personally dealt with instances of cyberbullying and harassment linked to cell phone use, 90% responded yes.

“Everyone wants to harp on the public school system, or just schools in general, for reduced achievement, but we don’t talk about the root of what’s causing it —  which is a lot of districations,” Barger said.

70% from the survey thought it increased negative impacts on student learning and behavior.

Survey results also indicated almost 50% disagreed or strongly disagreed if the current cell phone policy is constantly and effectively enforced by teachers in their school.

This month the curriculum and policy committee has to approve the superintendent’s recommendation to start a pilot with Yondr. The pilot will involve two schools and roll out in the fall semester. There aren’t any early numbers revealed on the costs — the initial price per pouch is $25 per student. 

This was one issue brought up by another Brunswick County Schools’ parent. Emily Donovan — co-founder of Clean Cape Fear — believed there is a need for a solution, also citing safety, but is worried the money used for the pouches could be better spent elsewhere. 

“I’m grateful the school board is recognizing how disruptive phones have become especially for middle- and high-school students,” she said. “However, these pouches are very expensive and BCS is struggling to hire bus drivers and full-time, qualified teachers.”

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