An East High School student uses her cell phone after stepping outside during a lunch break Tuesday. Each Wichita high school sets its own guidelines on cell phone use, usually allowing students to use phones before and after school, between classes and during lunch. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle
An East High School student uses her cell phone after stepping outside during a lunch break Tuesday. Each Wichita high school sets its own guidelines on cell phone use, usually allowing students to use phones before and after school, between classes and during lunch. Travis Heying The Wichita Eagle

Education

Students can’t use cellphones in Wichita schools. Is that stopping anyone?

By Suzanne Perez Tobias

stobias@wichitaeagle.com

February 14, 2018 07:03 PM

When it comes to cellphones in schools, the Wichita district’s policy is clear:

“The use of Personal Electronic Devices by pupils during the school day is prohibited,” the policy says. “These devices must be kept out of sight and powered off during the school day.”

But glance down a hallway at almost any Wichita high school – and many middle schools – and you’ll see students tapping away freely on cellphones, using them to text friends, look up information, snap photos and coordinate assignments.

“As I read this policy, it doesn’t appear to me to be consistent with practice at the schools,” said Julie Hedrick, a Wichita school board member.

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Hedrick and some others – including one of the candidates she defeated in November’s school board race – are pushing for more clarity and consistency in the way schools deal with cellphones.

On Monday, at Hedrick’s urging, the Wichita board voted 6-1 to direct Superintendent Alicia Thompson to review the district’s policy and return to the board with recommendations or updates.

Meanwhile Trish Hileman, who ran unsuccessfully against Hedrick in District 2, has started ICT Classrooms, a citizen advocacy group aimed at tackling issues facing the Wichita district.

On the agenda for the group’s first meeting: cellphones in schools.

“As I was running, speaking with parents, they wanted what the policy was and what was happening with boots on the ground to be consistent,” said Hileman, a mother of five.

“If you’re telling your kid, ‘You can’t have a cellphone because you can’t have it on campus anyway,’ but then that’s not the way it actually works in schools, it’s like, ‘Hold on a minute. What’s going on here?’”

Hileman is encouraging local parents, students, teachers and others to attend her group’s meeting – 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at her home, 139 S. Fountain – to discuss the issue and possibly develop a solution. She plans to present the group’s findings to the school board at its next meeting.

“It may sound naive, but I sort of thought this was low-hanging fruit,” Hileman said of the cellphone topic. “As school issues go, it’s tackle-able.”

Wichita’s cellphone policy – part of a broader policy on pupil behavior – was last updated nearly a decade ago.

Steve Wentz, president of the Wichita teachers union, urged school board members last fall to reconsider and clarify the policy on electronic devices, 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 at the time.

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.

In classrooms, most schools leave cellphone use to a teacher’s discretion. Some teachers ban phones altogether, directing students to keep them out of sight. Others allow them for certain purposes or while students are working independently.

Board president Mike Rodee voted against Hedrick’s motion to reconsider the policy, saying later that he thinks cellphones don’t belong in schools at all.

“They’re disruptive,” Rodee said. “You see what goes on nationally, with social media creating problems in schools. … If they’re on all day during class and kids are listening to music when they should be studying and learning, I just don’t agree with it.

“I’m an old guy, I guess. ... I know that I’m in the minority because it’s the trend,” he said. “But there are so many problems I see with them that, in my opinion, I just don’t think they belong in our schools.”

Rodee said he agrees with the policy as written – that phones should be powered off and put away during the school day – but acknowledged that that’s not the practice at most schools.

“I’m not going to be bull-headed about it,” he said. “If they come back to us and say, ‘Gee, we ought to have them, and these are the rules,’ I guess the world is changing and I need to change with it.”

Hedrick, the board member who raised the issue, said the district’s policy should better reflect current trends in education. One possible change, she said, could be a phrase stating that teachers may allow personal electronic devices in their classrooms “as approved by the school administration.”

“I would like to have staff look at that so that when we approve this policy, we’ll be approving it according to really how we want the practice to work in our schools,” Hedrick said.

Board vice president Sheril Logan said she’s not opposed to changing the cellphone policy if necessary, but that some restrictions should remain.

“I don’t want to make it so loose that we just have kids being able to use their devices whenever they want to,” Logan said. “That’s just a huge disrupter in our schools.”

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

ICT Classrooms

ICT Classrooms, a community group focused on issues facing Wichita public schools, will hold its first meeting 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at Trish Hileman’s home, 139 S. Fountain. The group plans to discuss the Wichita district’s policy regarding cellphones in schools.