As cellphones proliferate classrooms, so do distractions

The photograph depicting two naked women kissing emanated from the student’s cellphone screen, visible to everyone in the classroom. Glendale High School math teacher Taline Arsenian confiscated the device, placing it in a locked drawer.

The student subsequently became uncooperative, Arsenian said, and she informed him he could retrieve his phone at the end of the school day.

“Apparently, he went to an administrator and told on me,” Arsenian said. “The administrator came back to my room at lunch time and ordered me to give it back to him.”

The incident underscores inconsistencies in disciplinary practices within Glendale Unified — from school to school, if not from employee to employee — in addressing the omnipresence of electronic devices in the classroom.

At their most innocuous, cellphones are a distraction, teachers said. At worst, they facilitate cheating.

District officials announced earlier this month that they were looking to rewrite existing school board policy, providing direction on how to handle illicit cellphone use, but ultimately leaving the details up to school site administrators. The conversation is unfolding even as Glendale Unified — armed with a $270-million school bond — works to brand itself as a pacesetter in education technology.

Currently, electronic devices that disrupt school activities can be “confiscated by school officials,” including teachers. District administrators have proposed restricting such discretion to “a school administrator or designee,” meaning that principals could bar their teachers from confiscating cellphones.

The new language was born out of incidents in which cellphones confiscated by teachers subsequently went missing, said Deputy Supt. John Garcia. He declined to quantify the number of disappearances, but noted that the proposed policy would protect teachers from liability issues.

“It doesn’t lessen their authority to manage their classroom and work within their classroom,” Garcia said at a recent school board meeting. “What this is aimed at addressing is the complications related to confiscating something that technically belongs to a student and their parents.”

Some see it differently.

“I am...interested in being able to give the teachers in the classroom as many tools as possible, and not less tools, to manage the classroom,” school board Vice President Nayiri Nahabedian said. “I really need a good reason to reduce the authority that a teacher has.”

Other board members questioned whether trying to restrict cellphones is a losing battle, and suggested that the district explore actually incorporating them into classroom learning.

Parents want their children to carry cellphones in case of an emergency, but that is not what they are used for, teachers said. And parents themselves sometimes demonstrate poor etiquette, calling students in the middle of the school day.

Toll Middle School teacher Marcylen Bible said that nearly all of her students carry cellphones, but that the site has implemented an effective disciplinary practice that has received buy-in from all stakeholders. If a student is discovered using a cellphone out of turn, it’s confiscated and held in the administration office until the end of the day, Bible said.

“We have not had this year the problems we have had in the past,” Bible said. “It has been consistent, and the administration has been on top of it.”

A similar practice is in place at Crescenta Valley High School, said Allen Freemon. The math and history teacher estimated that he sends about four cellphones to the administration office each semester.

“I make very clear to my students at the start of the year that this is the policy, and I take it very seriously,” Freemon said.

Still, the devices remain a temptation. And at school sites where students, teachers and administrators are not on the same page, cellphones run free.

Arsenian, the Glendale High School teacher, estimates she is interrupted 80 times a day by student cellphone use. The devices are in laps, pockets, sleeves and backpacks, and the teenagers are so adept at texting that they rattle off messages without looking, she said.

“If it is a competition, the cellphone is going to win every time because it is much more entertaining than what I have to teach,” Arsenian said. “Even if I try and create a fun activity, it is not going to be as fun as any game they have on their cellphone.

“How do you win that battle?"

Twitter: @megankoneil

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