Editorial: Worcester schools find cellphone middle ground

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A proposed new policy for next school year attempts to really put cellphones in their place: under control.

Instead of in high school lockers all day, the phones could be in students’ pockets. During class time, the devices would be silenced, unseen and — presumably — less a point of contention in the crucial big-picture of education.

The amended rules were developed by a standing committee of the Worcester School Committee. Announced last week, they await approval by city officials.

More cell phone access in Worcester schools for students -- is that really a good idea?

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More cell phone access in Worcester schools for students — is that really a good idea?

Cellphones in city schools now are supposed to be kept in student lockers. The turn toward middle ground at the high school level would be an acknowledgement that students are old enough to take responsibility for their devices and to use them respectfully, in consideration of the rules and of their environment.

The amended policy also aligns with life as it’s lived now.

Cellphones have become practically an appendage for many, adults as well as the young. They’re carried for emergencies, routine communication, information, entertainment and social networking.

All this palm-sized technology is here to stay. Etiquette needs to catch up — and it can be learned in school.

As we all see every day on the roads, and in stores and other public places, cellphone courtesy and common sense are often seriously lacking. Instead of locking cellphones up all day, schools, through their own reasonableness, can help instill self-control and a sense of perspective with respect to these devices.

The new policy would not allow high schoolers to use cellphones or check them in class unless under a teacher’s express permission.

The proposed penalties for non-compliance, as outlined in a Telegram & Gazette story, strike us as possibly counterproductive. Phones would be confiscated for the rest of the school day for first-time offenders. Upon a second violation, the student’s parent or guardian would be required to get the phone back. A third offense, the policy says, could carry “additional disciplinary action … up to and including suspension from school.”

Confiscation until the end of the school day strikes us as painful enough in most cases. Students generally are quite uncomfortable with their phone in other hands, particularly those of an authority. While these penalties could seem harsh, they should convey to students the seriousness of violations and act as a strong deterrent. Only time will tell if this is indeed the case.

All in all, though, this cellphone policy revision strikes the right tone. It conveys that cellphones for older students is more of a non-issue than a button-pusher for the administration. It puts the onus on students to live up to the mature and achievable expectation that the phones, while close at hand, will be mostly out of mind during classroom business.This is a valuable message to our youth about generally decent and respectful behavior.

This new policy, we feel, is likely to work.

If the policy and its associated punishments ignite firestorms of student and parental complaints and hardships, though, we hope school leaders show the judgement and flexibility to tweak the cellphone guidelines.

The goal, on which all can agree, is to reduce disruptions related to phones.

Telling students to put their phones in their lockers requires them to do something none will do happily, and some simply won’t do at all. It’s a negative policy that sets up frustration and conflict before the students are even through the classroom door.

Allowing high-schoolers to keep their cellphones with them during the school day, on the other hand, conveys something subtle and powerful: School is about you, not your cellphone.

Perhaps paradoxically, lightening up a bit helps keep the emphasis on education.

This is relatively new territory for school systems everywhere, and it needs to be navigated intelligently.

We commend Dianna Biancheria, Jack Foley and John Monfredo — members of the School Committee’s Governance and Employee Issues Standing Committee — for developing this new policy. In our view, it passes the cellphone test.

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