Seventh graders at Westbrook Middle School will not be allowed this fall to have their cellphones on them during the school day under a new policy adopted last week.
The School Committee voted 6-1 for the policy change, which comes in the wake of reports from staff of bullying on social media and class disruptions and distractions as a result of phone use during the school day. A recent fight during school recess was videotaped on cell phones and circulated on social media.
The change is effective at the start of the 2022-23 school year. Students now in seventh and eighth grades will not see any changes, but starting next fall, all new seventh graders will be subject to the policy. The following year, the policy will include the eighth grade.
Westbrook Middle School serves grades 5-8. Students in grades 5-6 are not allowed to have their phones on them during the school day, but as of now, students in grades 7-8 may and are asked to limit their use to the start or end of the day.
School Committee member Noreen Poitras criticized the policy change and voted against it, saying it was a “knee jerk” reaction.
“This is the first time this was brought to us,” Poitras said. “If it wasn’t for the cellphones recording the fight, would this be here? I think eighth graders should have a right to have them at recess and outside.”
Poitras said it is up to parents to teach phone responsibility.
“If it wasn’t for that video, we would not be here right now,” Poitras said. “By taking them away you are not teaching anything. They are going to use them, sneak them into the bathroom, text, Snapchat. And what happens if we have a lockdown and parents want to call their kids?”
School Committee member Katy Rice said according to school administrators and staff members, children may give their own version of events to parents during emergencies, which might not be accurate or could even create more chaos.
Principal Laurie Wood said Police Capt. Steve Goldberg agrees with those concerns about student phone use during emergencies.
Rice also said recess and lunch are times for students to have face-to-face interaction.
“That was part of the thought process of why it was a benefit to them, to not be conversing with someone they may not know on a game or whatever, and actually talk to the person next to them,” Rice said.
Committee member Andrea Mancuso said no parent had spoken against the policy change or expressed any concerns about it.
“I think it is important to support our educators in creating an environment they think is best for student learning,” Mancuso said.
Superintendent Peter Lancia commended the move, saying the process “worked how it was supposed to.”
“Kids can have their cell phones and in their locker, put away,” Lancia said in a phone interview. “Some children, there is a medical reason with a certain app. There will be exceptions for that. Can they text in the day? No, but if they need it on their person there is an exception. So it is not a ban, but extended restrictions for developmental and academic reasons.”