Lathan proposes tweaks to SPS student cellphone rules. Some on school board want more (2024)

Claudette RileySpringfield News-Leader

Despite several lengthy discussions and with school starting in just six weeks, top Springfield school officials have not announced a final plan for enforcing cellphone restrictions this fall.

A revised approach was outlined by Superintendent Grenita Lathan in a June 18 email to the school board. It spelled out two sets of expectations, one for elementary and middle schools and another for high schools.

In the email obtained by the News-Leader, Lathan proposed revising the student handbook section on electronic devices to outlaw "laser pointers and other unsafe" devices and to require the following for cellphones, headphones, wireless earbuds, and smartwatches:

  • In elementary and middle schools, permitted electronic devices should be stored out of sight, for before or after school use only, unless directed otherwise by staff;
  • In high schools, the permitted electronic devices "may be in the student's possession as long as they are not disruptive to the educational process or in violation of site-use procedures";
  • The district would also omit this broad sentence for K-12, which had been included the 2023-24 handbook: "Cellphones at school should be stored in backpacks for before/after school use only unless directed otherwise by staff."

Lathan's email, which also included a proposed "behavior management process" flowchart showing what steps would be taken for infractions, including unauthorized cellphone use.

For example, minor misuse of technology or unauthorized cellphone use will be handled with a warning, review of classroom expectations, individual conference with the student or parent communication in most cases. Major issues including chronic unauthorized cellphone use will prompt a conference with student or parent, assigning discipline, and documenting the incident.

She said students in K-8 will be expected to keep cellphones "out-of-sight during the school day." However, the high schools will have more autonomy to set site-specific expectations.

Stephen Hall, chief communications officer, said Lathan's team has continued to revise the language in recent weeks and will finalize its approach by the end of July since the handbook is printed in early August. The first day of class for the 2024-25 year is Aug. 19.

The entire board has signaled strong support for curbing cellphone use in classrooms, calling it a distraction, and Lathan has repeatedly said there are rules in place but consistent enforcement is needed.

Her email was sent one week after the June 11 meeting, which included a discussion about student cellphones use that board member Kelly Byrne asked be placed on the agenda. The topic has repeatedly surfaced in other board discussions, primarily about student learning and behavior issues.

In that meeting, there was an extensive back-and-forth about whether the rules for cellphones should be set by the administration — and placed in the student handbook that parents are expected to read, sign and report back to the district — or in a board-approved policy.

In the board meeting that followed, on June 25, Byrne said he expected to see the cellphone issue back on the agenda and was disappointed with the proposed handbook revisions provided by Lathan.

Byrne said he was initially excited to see the email and supported the revised expectations for elementary and middle schools. "Those are good steps in the right direction."

"However, when it comes to the language for high schools, to me, this is going in the opposite direction of what I would want to see, what I've been pushing for," he said.

Byrne specified that he wanted to see steps that would "serve to greatly remove cellphones from the learning environment." He argued the language, as it was proposed in the June 18 email, makes it "easier for students to use their cellphones in school."

He said given that he agreed with part of the approach but not the other, he renewed his call for the board to set expectations in the form of a policy.

"We're at a point where the board needs to create policy to be more clear about what we want to accomplish regarding our school district," he said.

Byrne made a motion to hold a special board meeting in early July to take action on the cellphone issue, which failed in a 4-3 vote. The motion was supported by Maryam Mohammadkhani and Steve Makoski and opposed by Danielle Kincaid, Judy Brunner, Susan Provance and Shurita Thomas-Tate.

Thomas-Tate said policy provides guidelines that reflect the district's mission and values while procedures in the handbook are "enforced in day-to-day interactions."

"I am opposed to policy that is attempting to micromanage the authority of our superintendent and administrators to perform their duties in effective ways," she said.

Makoski said a special meeting was needed to decide next steps.

"Cellphones within the district is causing a lot of our problems and a lot of our problems can be solved by actually having a specific policy that we can help guide our superintendent to enact and enforce within the schools," he said.

Makoski said he is "not necessarily in favor" of each high school having its own rules. "By causing confusion, that means that we're going to continue to have many problems."

Mohammadkhani supported Byrne's proposal to draft a cellphone policy that was based on the wording that has been used in the handbook or a model policy option provided by the Missouri School Boards' Association. She noted a number of districts in Missouri and beyond have taken steps to curb student cellphone use during school hours.

"We have talked about this subject for a long time now. This has been on the burner for some time," she said. "And for those of us with school-age children who have been sounding the alarm on the negative effects of screen addiction and social media addiction and digital addiction in general and its devastating effect on the self-worth and mental health of children it is quite a relief ... we finally get to see the widespread societal awareness."

Mohammadkhani said cellphone use interferes with students' development and "threatens their innocence" and the board has the power to take action.

"It is not often that we have this opportunity to do something that really impacts students, not just their academic outcomes, but their lives," she said.

More: Springfield school board backs limits on student cellphone use, consistent enforcement

She said decisions like curbing cellphone use in schools were central to her campaign for re-election and she called on Provance, who was elected to an initial term in April, to vote along with herself, Byrne and Makoski.

Provance said there was agreement that enforcement needed to be a "point of emphasis" this year.

She said Lathan pitched a more "collaborative" approach with a measure of flexibility for each high school. Provance noted the Los Angeles district announced plans to ban cellphones in schools but had not figured out how to make it happen.

"I just believe that the teachers, the principals and the administration with the board's help can master procedures. That will be our best policy," she said. "And if we don't see the improvements that we want to see, we can always go back."

More: Nixa High School will restrict student cellphone use in classrooms starting this fall

Brunner, board vice president, said members "agree more than we disagree" when it comes to reducing cellphone use in schools. She said there are a lot of opinions about what steps to take.

"The people that I'm hearing from say we don't need policy," she said, noting the expectations were spelled out in the handbook last year.

"People in the buildings tell me it was markedly better last year even though they admitted that come third quarter, there were more reminders that needed to go out because people got a little lax with it," she said. "The reminders went out and it went better. So when I asked directly 'Do you need policy?' I'm told by people that I've talked to we don't need policy, we like the direction we're going."

Lathan proposes tweaks to SPS student cellphone rules. Some on school board want more (2024)


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