Mecklenburg trustees punt on cell phones, backtrack on clear backpacks

The Mecklenburg County School Board pushed off a vote this week on whether to bar the possession and use of cell phones inside school facilities starting with the 2022-23 school year. Trustees also walked back a policy that would have limited students to using only clear backpacks for carrying books and supplies.

At the School Board’s meeting on Wednesday, Division Superintendent Paul Nichols opened a discussion on the cell phone policy by pointing to a prior June 8 discussion at a board work session. Because of that, “I think our board members want to have further conversations,” Nichols said.

Trustee Ricky Allgood, retired band director at Bluestone, was the first to speak up, sharing his experience as a teacher. “I hate cell phones. I had to deal with them while teaching. But after talking to administrators, to parents, teachers and students, I don’t see how we can pass a no cell phone [policy] and enforce it. I want a strict policy on how and when they are used and enforce that.”

Citing a memo from La Crosse Elementary School Principal Connie Puckett, Gloria Smith said she could see where cell phones would be needed in an emergency situation. “I believe we can have them and see that they [the students] use them in the right way. I don’t do see how I can say no cell phones at all,” said Smith.

“Teachers should have them in special places in the classroom and accommodations have been made. It is very difficult to say that in the case of an electrical power outage sometimes the phones don’t use. Usage should be rationalized,” said Smith.

Trustee Wanda Bailey pointed out that the current cell phone usage policy in the student handbook allows students to have a cell phone on campus, but “may not use them.” She said, too, that the handbook also calls for “phone caddies in every classroom where phones will be deposited.”

Personally, said Bailey, “I don’t want to see cell phones in the school, in the halls, on the bus. Students come into schools with things on their person and I look at that phone as one of their personal items and I don’t need to see that all day.”

Bailey said the “no cell phone” policy should be a learning tool for students. “Something we have not spoken about, one of the goals of our six academies, was to try to instill workforce ethics in our students,” said Bailey, “and one thing they need to do is to learn to be responsible with electronic devices. They need to show up on time, dress appropriately and learn when to use their phone.”

Board Chair Gavin Honeycutt reiterated the position which he first advanced during the June 8 work session — “We are very blessed to have a partnership with Microsoft. We are going to have the best technology in our buildings. We have a one-on-one for technology with Chromebooks. Why do we need cell phones?”

As for the phone caddies, Honeycutt said, “I spoke with eight teachers and no one said that any students used the caddy. There is a lot of evil and it starts with this right here,” he said, holding up a cell phone. “We have spent tens of millions of dollars to provide our children with the best technology but this is not part of it.”

“You can’t tell me that they [students] can’t go six hours [the length of the school day] without a phone,” Honeycutt concluded.

Glenn Edwards was the only member of the school board to ask if the teachers and others working in the school building had been surveyed to learn their position on cell phone usage. “Did we canvass every teacher, coach and paraprofessional? We need to because they are the ones that have to make it work. If a majority says do away with cell phones, then that’s majority rule,” Edwards said.

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Joan Hite acknowledged that teachers had not been involved in developing the cell phone policy. She shared her opinion that “if you ban them [cell phones], it will be an overburden on the school administrators every day.

Edwards explained that he was not a fan of cell phones: “I’ve got a grandson and my biggest beef with him is getting his cell phone away from him. It is a deterrent to learning.” In the end, Edwards said it was more important that the policy work best for the people in the schools buildings who would be asked to enforce it.

Brent Ritchey said he concurred with Edwards’ desire to hear from school staff on the matter. “I am afraid we are creating problems by asking the staff to spend a big part of their day enforcing [the policy],” said Ritchey.

In response to the suggestion made by several board members that banning cell phones might end problems with bullying, Ritchey said, “If we think that we can solve bullying, we can’t be these kids’ parents. I think that we kid ourselves if we think we are solving bullying by not allowing cell phones.”

He also expressed concern about one stated motive for keeping cell phones out of the schools. “I don’t think I will ever be for something that keeps parents out of the loop,” he said.

Ritchey’s remarks came in response to comments by Dora Garner, who called cell phones a “safety issue” because of the way they have been misused by the students. She cited a recent incident involving an alleged bomb threat. “The police were trying to search the building and there were parents lined up out front having spasms. The parents get so excited they rush to the school and if there is a problem, the parents will be in the way.”

Honeycutt observed that in the case of true emergencies, the school division implements a “robocall system that goes out to parents. The policy as written is not working. If we say [no phones] at all, it might be a deterrent.”

After Hite said she agreed with Edwards’ suggestion that the staff be polled, the majority of the board agreed to hold off changing the cell phone policy. The new student handbooks were approved with the current policy in place.

The current policy allows students to possess but not use cell phones while at school or school functions without the express authorization of a teacher or during specified times such as lunch.

A subsequent vote to poll teachers and staff about cell phone usage passed by a vote of 6 to 1. Bailey was the lone “no” vote. Honeycutt, Smith, Ritchey, Allgood, Garner and Edwards voted “yes.” Rob Campbell and Lindell Palmer were absent from the meeting.

A final vote on whether to retain or change the cell phone policy will take place at the next school board meeting in July.

In other business, Nichols said the school division continues to collect the results of end-of-year SOL tests administered to county students. Nichols expressed concern that the results, once completed, will show that the 2021-22 school year “has been an even more difficult year than the virtual year” for student learning and learning loss.

On a positive note, Nichols said despite the lack of a signed budget from the state, he was confident that there would be sufficient funding to give every school employee a 5 percent raise plus a $1,000 bonus. Qualifying teachers and staff would also receive their step salary increases based on years of service.

The School Board’s decision to eliminate a requirement that students use only clear backpacks in the coming school year was reached after Edwards pointed to the expense of the item. “A lot of kids can’t afford to buy a clear backpack. We have created a monster,” he said.

Edwards also said that limiting kids to clear backpacks did not truly address any safety concern. “If a kid wants to bring a gun into school he’ll just put it in a brown paper bag and then in the clear backpack.”

Smith said a clear backpack offers a false sense of security and they are not durable.

Bailey explained the rationale behind the call for clear backpacks at sports venues — noting they were mandated “because it made the screening process go more quickly. I agree it is a false sense of security. I don’t see where it would be helpful. Even on college campuses where there have been shootings, they have not made that transition.”

Nichols promised to pass on information on school safety plans to each trustee. The promise came after Smith asked to see the plans at the June 8 work session. Nichols explained that the main focus of the plan is for doors to be locked in the event of a perceived threat to school buildings. Anyone with concerns about threats or security risks, no matter how tenuous, is encouraged to notify someone in the school as soon as possible. “You never want to take safety for granted,” Nichols said.

Nichols said the division has used grant monies to improve security at the elementary schools.

In response to Ritchey’s suggestion that a device be installed to sound an alarm or warning whenever a door is opened, Brian Dalton, executive director of Facilities and Operations, said the access badges issued to school personnel are excellent security devices. “We can limit access with those badges. If the badge is not used, it automatically disconnects. The doors have the technology that sends an alarm that notifies if the door is open longer than reasonably expected.”

Stepping away from her role as assistant superintendent, Joan Hite encouraged the board to “make wise decisions best on what is best for students” when filling staffing positions. She asked trustees to put aside any “persona agenda,” explaining that the principals at each school and central office staff spend countless hours interviewing candidates before recommending a person. Their recommendation should be given full consideration by the board.

“Careful consideration should be given when moving people into key roles. Our main focus is this what is best for students, how will this affect our staff. If you can’t say yes or have relevant understanding of the effect, then you should reevaluate your options.” Hite said.

During her remarks, Hite did not share which if any recent staffing decisions by the board went against this advice.

She also encouraged the board to hire testing personnel for the elementary schools. “They need testing personnel next year. School counselors cannot meet student needs and handle testing,” which she said will take place at least three times during the upcoming school year.

“I am a passionate educator who believes in standing up for what is right. Those who build great organizations have the right people on the bus and the right people in the key seats. They always think about who first before what. The best strategy is to have the best people,” Hite concluded.

Troy Bowers, speaking on behalf of the NAACP, spoke about the issues that come from merging four schools in one building. He said it offers many opportunities and comes with responsibilities.

“As we move on from our initial excitement our focus will be on the parents, disciplinary issues, and diversity in hiring and retention to ensure that our goals and objectives are being met,” Bowers said. He asked for the hiring process to be fair and transparent.

Glenn Reyes asked if the new building was designated as a FEMA facility for use during disasters. Nichols said there had been no discussion with FEMA but agreed to look into it.

 

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