Portland weighs student cell phone use restrictions

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Portland Public School officials could revise the district’s policy to restrict the use of mobile devices for middle and elementary school students. 

The School Board’s Curriculum and Policy Committee has proposed a revision that would remove the current rule permitting middle and elementary school students to use phones in hallways, at lunch and on field trips. The committee will discuss the change further at its next meeting before bringing it before the school board for a potential vote.

School officials told the Curriculum and Policy Committee at the Oct. 25 meeting that administrators and faculty pointed to cell phone use as a root cause of behavioral challenges, especially fighting and bullying. 

“It’s really hard for administrators and teachers to manage it when kids aren’t supposed to have it out in class, but suddenly they’re in the hall, going to the bathroom, or at lunch and the phones come out,” Assistant Superintendent Melea Nalli said.

Two of the three middle schools in the district, Lyman Moore and King, already enforce this policy in practice, Nalli added, but are implementing it in slightly different ways. She hopes the policy revision will make the ruling consistent across the middle schools.

Officials urged swift action on cell phone use, saying they believe it could have contributed to recent student violence that took place at some September sporting events. Those problems led to the district temporarily limiting which sporting events students were allowed to attend.

Portland would be the second Maine district to restrict cell phone use for students below the high school level. The Lewiston school district made the decision to restrict cell phones entirely from schools for students through middle school at the beginning of this school year.

A legislative bill in Maine from 2019 moved to restrict the use of cellphones in schools statewide, but was met with significant opposition and was struck down by a 112-26 vote.

A full-on ban isn’t likely for PPS, and officials said that the situation will most likely depend on teacher discretion for scenarios during which students may need to use their phones — to contact a parent, for example.

This could lead to a shift where parents would have to call the school to get in touch with their child during school hours. Board member Micky Bondo suggested that outreach about the change would be an important first step.

“We need to add education pieces [for parents] before we put this policy in place,” Bondo said, “they have to know exactly where to go – if they have to use the multilingual office [to reach their child].”

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