Smart students, smart teachers, and smart phones

October 4, 2017

According to Pew Research, in 2017, one third of Americans live in a household with three or more smart phones. With “Facebook,” “Instagram,” and “emoji” now in the everyday vernacular, school districts absolutely must be up to date on their smart phone policies.

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Some schools’ policies allow students to use cellphones during the school day, while others ban cellphone use outright. These policies, however, are not always the same for teachers. In addition to realizing the potential for students using internet access to cheat on their work, and disruptions caused by teachers stepping out to take calls or texting during the school day, here are a few things to consider when reevaluating your school’s stance on the issue:

How does this fit into your school’s privacy policy?

Whether the decision comes down to “under no circumstances should teachers use cellphones during the school day, unless there is an emergency” or “students and teachers can use cellphones at any time except during tests,” make sure that is aligned with school policy. Issues that could arise from cellphone use include photos being taken without a subject’s informed consent, an increase in interruptions during discussions, and even a rise in cyber-bullying.

Another question to answer is whether students’ phones will ever be examined by teachers or administrators. In the age of the smart phone, there is the potential for searches, especially sweeping or random searches, to unconstitutionally release or reveal an individual’s private data. The ACLU, for example, is straightforwardly against cellphone search and seizure, stating that it violates a student’s constitutional rights. The ACLU recommends confiscation of phones as a reasonable alternative to a search, adding that possession of a phone, even if it against school rules, does not legally justify its contents being examined.

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Cellphone use and security threats

The National School Safety and Security Services organization points out that cellphone use in an emergency situation creates an even less secure environment. Cellphones are difficult to trace if bomb threats are made from them. Students calling home during an emergency could draw too much attention (not to mention misinformation and rumors) to a potentially delicate or dangerous situation when public safety officials need to have less human traffic due to evacuations, EMS, and other tactical or safety reasons. An electronic device could even accidentally detonate an explosive device. They recommend that administrators, but not students, have access to phones at a time of emergency.

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How to curb troublesome texts

A potential headache for school administrators: A teacher opts to forego the district’s email system and instead gives out his or her personal cellphone number, reasoning that the most effective way to communicate with his or her smart phone-obsessed students is by text. What’s a district to do? Fortunately, there are apps on the market that convert emails to text messages, allowing educators to communicate effectively with students, perhaps especially at-risk youth, without being forced to give out their personal phone numbers.

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Remind allows educators to message one or multiple devices about everything from assignments to field trips and office hours without giving out personal numbers while preserving a record of every message sent. Class Dojo is another app teachers can use to communicate with families, either through one-on-one messages or group messages.

While tools like these may provide a safer and more effective way for educators and families to communicate, it’s still important for districts to do their due diligence to ensure that the tools align with their district’s needs, rules, and values. It is also important for districts to oversee the process for selecting which apps teachers use to communicate with students and families, have strong acceptable use policies governing the use of district technology, establish procedures for vetting contracts and new technologies, and maintain any records in accordance with the district’s retention policies.

Lozano Smith has created an in-depth resource to help districts deal with issues raised by the retention of emails and the creation, sending, and receipt of electronic communications related to school district business by employees and officials. You can request a free copy here.

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