Navigating the new norm
Cell phones weren't always allowed in schools.
Rocky Miner, who is the current interim assistant principal at Crook County Middle School, first served as the school's principal from 2000 to 2009, and early in his tenure, students were barred from bringing the electronic devices into the building.
He recalls that they were viewed as an unnecessary distraction. If a student needed to call a parent for any reason, each classroom was equipped with a phone, or they could head down to the office and make a call there.
But midway through his nine years at CCMS, the tide began to change. He remembers one year in particular — perhaps in 2004 or 2005 — when it seemed like a lot of students got cell phones for Christmas. So school staff relaxed the rules a bit.
"We said you can have them in your locker, but that's it," he said.
To say times have changed since then would grossly understate things. Cell phones gave way to smartphones, and it only took a few years for them to transition from a novelty to a common possession among students and adults alike.
When Miner returned in 2018 for a one-year stint as assistant principal, he was greeted with a drastically different cell phone culture at the middle school. Principal Kurt Sloper estimates that about 90 percent of the student body brings a cell phone to school each day.
"It has really evolved over the years," Miner remarked.
Though the presence of cell phones has dramatically increased in the past few years, the schools are trying to rein in their use and keep students engaged in their studies. The middle school has what Sloper terms a nice and neat policy.
"They are supposed to be off and out of site from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (the exact hours of the school day)," he said. "What we find is the more kids are allowed to take them out, the more that they take them out or access them at inappropriate times or in places that don't have supervision."
As before, classroom and office phones are available to students who need to contact their parents.
Crook County High School has a more lenient policy. Jake Huffman, the school's dean of students, said cell phones are allowed during lunch and during passing periods. But in class, they are off limits, although teachers are given the latitude to allow them as part of classroom instruction. Meanwhile, they are not allowed in restrooms or anywhere lacking adult supervision.
Huffman estimates that around 98 to 99 percent of students have a cell phone.
"Even the most disadvantaged students, they have a cell phone," he said.
And that isn't necessarily a bad thing, Huffman noted.
"At this point, especially at the high school level with students participating in extracurricular activities and things of that nature, they are kind of a tool that parents use as well to communicate with their kids. We realize there is a need for them."
He noted that during the passing periods or at lunchtime, a lot of students can be found talking to parents to figure out who is picking them up after school or perhaps to tell them an event has been canceled.
"That's an appropriate time to use them," Huffman said.
But mixed in with the useful and appropriate attributes of cell phones in school are the many challenges and negative impacts their presence brings to the table. The door is now open more than ever for students to send inappropriate or hurtful texts to other students or engage in cyberbullying and spreading harmful rumors through different social media platforms.
Unlike the Google Chromes that are used from the elementary to high school level to integrate computer technology into education, smartphones do not feature internet filters that prevent students from accessing inappropriate websites and videos.
"That is one of the single biggest reasons that we have a blanket 8 to 3 policy," Sloper said. "It is extremely difficult to monitor and supervise while the students are in our care."
Such problems have even infiltrated the grade school environment. Barnes Butte Elementary Principal Jim Bates said that while cell phones in the hands of students has been helpful to keep them connected to parents after the school day concludes, it has created an ever-present and growing negative in social networking.
"What used to be negative texting – and parents can monitor that pretty reasonably – has graduated into a dozen different apps that students can have that on the surface level look like entertainment apps for music or games," he said. "In reality, the major portion of those apps are a communications option."
Bates has seen students comment and personal message each other through these apps, and it is very difficult for parents to monitor.
Not too long ago, cell phones had a limited presence among elementary school students. Those who had them as little as three years ago typically inherited an old cell phone in the family as older siblings and parents upgraded to newer models.
Now, Bates estimates that 40 to 50 percent of his students have one that they bring to school daily.
"In the last three years, I have seen the presence of cell phones minimally double in the hands of younger kids, and they are reaching the younger ages faster and faster," he said.
Nearly all fifth-graders have them, he said, many fourth- and third-graders do, and even a growing number of kids in second and first grade have them.
Bates said the school does not ban students from bringing devices to school, but like the middle school, they are to be turned off and put away during the school day.
"We give students access to electronic devices here at the school with our Chromes, and they have filters on them, and it's organized and planned and part of the curriculum," Bates said. "So they have plenty of access to online resources without having unsupervised access or use with their cell phones, and texting and messaging."
Though cell phones have become commonplace and the majority of students have them at schools, educators have faced minimal pushback against the rules governing them. Bates said compliance among his elementary students has been nearly 100 percent while Sloper encounters maybe two to three incidents a week at the middle school where students have phones out at the wrong time. At the high school, there are some students who receive cell phone violation forms more than others, Huffman said, but compliance is generally good.
Mixed in with rules and policies governing cell phone use, schools are continually trying to grapple with the negative interactions through texting and social media that come with students using the devices.
"We can teach expectations, which we do," Huffman said. "We can share those expectations and make them visible and teach what appropriate behavior is."
Sloper said that middle school leaders have been trying to increase the education around cell phone use, incorporating it into their focus lessons or maybe the health curriculum. The goal is to teach kids to be empathetic students and positive citizens who understand the power of their words and actions.
"Students have incredible power and sometimes they don't realize it," he said. "They can hurt each other quickly and spread rumors quickly."
Meanwhile, Bates advocates for less screen time for elementary-age students and more person-to-person interaction. He points out that he has yet to come across research that suggests children in that age group are prepared to handle what comes with unfiltered access to social networking and the internet.
"The evidence continues to point toward students being better off not having a cell phone until they have the ability to develop stronger decision-making skills," he said.
Bates believes it should be a priority among families, educators and community to set aside blocks of time to engage in traditional social interaction and to limit screen time.
Based on recent trends, it would seem that cell phones — particularly the smartphone variety — will become more and more common and will likely find their way into the hands of even more students. And as that happens, local educators are trying to keep an eye forward and continually adjust to new norms.
The Crook County School Board recently passed a district-wide cell phone policy that seeks to enable use of the devices while appropriately managing their presence in the schools.
"My opinion is you can't keep them out, so embrace it," said Superintendent Sara Johnson. "It's unrealistic to think you aren't going to use technology. That's not happening. There are ways to embrace it. I think it's like any form of communication — don't use it to hurt people."
Sloper plans to continually review middle school policies and "make sure we have good logic and rationale for expecting the things that we do with any rule in the school."
"Maybe we tweak things here and there," he remarked.
Huffman, meanwhile, concedes that cell phones are like many technological tools. They have the power to help or to harm, and it is up to school leaders, as the devices become more common, to set clear procedures and expectations to keep problems at a minimum.
"Things have to be used appropriately," he said. "I don't care if it's cell phones or scissors."