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Can Banning Phones in School Curb Cyberbullying?

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As schools across the country prepare to start the new academic year, principals and district leaders will be forced to confront a perennially thorny issue—students' social media use.

Grappling with concerns around cyberbullying, school safety, and sexting, some districts choose to monitor students' online posting, keeping tabs on digitally delivered messages that could signal dangerous behavior in real life.  

And some schools, including Lewiston Middle School in Maine, decide to ban cellphones from the premises altogether.

District and school leaders hope the new policy will decrease cyberbullying and classroom distraction, the Sun Journal reported. The ban comes after a wave of what Superintendent Bill Webster called "clearly inappropriate, very troubling posts" in the wake of two students' deaths last school year.

Jayden Cho-Sargent, 13, was killed in November when a vehicle struck him on his way to school, and Anie Graham, also 13, died by suicide in May, the Sun Journal reported. After both deaths, said Webster, students posted mean comments and false information online.

Many of these posts were time-stamped from the middle of the school day, said Lewiston Middle School principal, Jana Mates, in an interview.

"Our job when kids are here is to protect them, to keep them safe—not just physically, but emotionally as well," she said.

Whether or not to ban cellphones on campus is a contentious issue among school leaders. 

There's some evidence that banning phones correlates with better academic outcomes: A 2015 study released by the Center for Economic Performance at the London School for Economics and Public Policy found that middle school test scores rose in schools that prohibted phone use in class.

But some teachers and education experts see mobile phones, with their potential for internet-enabled collaboration and research, as potentially powerful learning tools. A complete ban on phones in schools may be unrealistic, said Sameer Hinduja, co-author of  "Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and Responding to Cyberbullying," in a 2014 interview with Education Week.  

Instead of having hard-and-fast rules about when students can use devices, and confiscating them if rules are broken, educators should set reasonable standards for responsible use, he said. "Kids think adults are out of touch banning things that really can't be banned," said Hinduja.   

Even if schools prohibit devices on the premises, students can still send harassing messages and post inappropriate content at home. To get to the root of cyberbullying, Hinduja recommended taking steps to improve school climate. Digital citizenship programs, in which students learn how to engage safely and ethically online, are gaining traction in K-12 schools. 

Along with the cellphone ban, Lewiston Middle School is also implementing a digital citizenship program twice a week in homeroom classes. Students will discuss empathy, accepting difference, and the significance of posting publicly online. "Once you put things in words on the internet, you can't take them back," said Mates.

Mates acknowledged that students could still post disparaging or bullying messages at home under the new policy.

"At the very least," she said, "[the ban] can allow them, when they're here, to not be anxious that something's going to be said about them during school hours."


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