Smartphone, Social Media Policies Change with the Times in Illinois

Educators reflect on what they're doing to prepare students for a technology-rich world.

by Thomas Bruch, Journal Star, Peoria, Ill. / August 1, 2016

(TNS) — While discussing the rapid changes in technology as it pertains to students in the classroom, Dr. Lindsey Hall recalled something that made her laugh. She could remember a time, in the late 1990s, when cell phones and pagers were banned from schools.

The policies are quite the opposite for most school districts in the modern educational landscape including Morton School District 709, where she is the current superintendent.

"Our teachers and our principals are more interested in teaching the appropriate use of technology than squashing the use of it," Hall said.

The phones are no longer the mere cellular ones that posed such a threat to educators in the 1990s that banning them was considered a solution. Everyone has a smartphone now, all the way down to children in elementary and middle schools. Confronted with the ubiquity of smartphones now in their schools, educators have grappled with regulating phone usage in the classroom, instructing students on appropriate behavior on social media and — most importantly — embracing new technology.

"It's not going away," Hall said. "High school kids will be moving on to technology-rich environments in college and after college. We want them to be comfortable in those environments."

Most schools in the area govern with broad rules for phone usage during school hours. Peoria Public Schools abides by a policy of having phones off and out of sight during class time. St. Vincent de Paul Grade School also follows that policy. All of the students in Morton School District 709 will have a personal device this coming school year, according to Hall, and teachers ask that students not have their phones out during school. In almost all cases, each school has a Wifi network that can filter out websites that students are not allowed to access.

Exceptions to these broader policies are present in most schools. Young said that a few teachers at Manual allow students to use their phones in conjunction with lesson plans, and school administrators permit teachers to approach smartphone technology with an open mind.

But the advent of smartphones has led to the pervasiveness of social media apps for students of a range of ages. Most of these platforms are aimless spaces to interact with friends, yet some end up as vehicles for online bullying or harassment. The Center for Prevention of Abuse sends out nine professional educators in the Prevention Education Department to consult with area schools, including Peoria Public Schools, St. Vincent de Paul and other schools in the Tri-County Area.

Marcia Bolden, Director of Prevention Services at the Center, said the onus of educating and maintaining bullying-free environments has shifted more toward schools in recent years. The schools, in turn, have relied more on the Center to keep them up to speed on the newest apps, trends and methods of prevention. In the Center for Abuse's office, employees share information with each other weekly about the hot new app students are communicating on and then learn more about the app to update their presentations for schools, according to Bolden.

"The speed of expansion for each new app or technology has been mind boggling," Hall said.

A key part of the Center's presentations for students is concerned with demystifying some of the beliefs students have about social media, Bolden said. Many students believe that posts on social media platforms are temporary and then disappear, which is usually not the case at all, Bolden said. Young said that instructing students on the effects of what they post on social media is a primary focus at Manual.

"From college applications to job interviews, what you put on social could negatively affect you," Young said.

Even at the grade school level, these themes are being broached and discussed. Young said that education on the topic of appropriate social media behavior starts at the eighth-grade level for Peoria Public Schools. St. Vincent de Paul Grade School also educates its middle-school level students on the matter.

"We talk a lot about responsibility and the do's and don'ts," said Patsy Santen, principal of St. Vincent de Paul Grade School.

Though the dangers of smartphone technology and social media are highlighted, most schools recognize the new reality of technology in everyday life. Hall has her phone by her all the time. Young routinely uses Facebook. With the possibly malicious elements of apps in mind, educators are keen on embracing technology. Young pointed out that social media can be a valuable tool in networking, and Hall stated that more innovations are forthcoming as students progress to college or the workplace.

"We have to be cognizant that that's where our students are right now, and we need to meet them at that level," Young said.

©2016 the Journal Star (Peoria, Ill.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.