The new, relaxed rules allowing more cellphone use in Howard County schools have been in place for about two months, and while some parents are saying they enjoy the new freedom students have with their electronic devices, others are speaking out against the guidelines.
An online petition calling for a moratorium on the new rules has gained nearly 200 signatures since it was launched Oct. 1, with parents saying cellphones have no place in the schools, and that they should have been included in the decision- making process to relax the restrictions.
"The biggest concern for us was not just the new rules themselves, which we're not crazy about, but the way parents weren't included in the process," said Ying Matties, a Centennial High School mother of two, who started the petition with some friends. "We learned about it after school had started, when the new rules were already put in place. It was a shock and a surprise, and it shouldn't have been."
The Howard County Public School System this year relaxed cellphone use in schools. Three high schools — River Hill, Mt. Hebron and Long Reach — are piloting a bring-your-own-device program, which allows students to use their own phones, tablets and computers in class. In the other high schools, students are able to use their phones between classes and during lunch, and in middle schools students are able to have their phones with them, but out of sight and silent. In elementary schools, students must keep their phones turned off and in their backpacks. According to the new guidelines, "each school will work toward permitting cellphone use during cafeteria/recess and hallway/transition times by the end of first semester."
The Board of Education this summer approved a new policy outlining responsible use of technology for staff and students. That policy went through the public hearing process and was established by two policy committees that did include parents and students. An administrative action, however, led to the Bring Your Own Device pilot for the three high schools, said Frank Eastham, the system's executive director of school improvement and administration, and the decision to enact it and the new rules didn't include parent input.
"The policy opened up the possibility of devices in schools," he said. "We had to revise the code of conduct so student wouldn't be violating the rules by participating in the pilot."
Schools spokeswoman Rebecca Amani-Dove said the new policy has "a strong emphasis on meeting people where they are and how we communicate. There was resounding support for the policy and the direction it's taking the school system."
Petition-signers say allowing cellphones is schools is distracting, takes away from social and academic learning, and highlights inequities among the students.
"When my kids are home and have free time, they are glued to their electronics," said Karen York, a mother of three, including a daughter at Centennial. "I don't want that to be the case when they're at school. I want my daughter to have access to her phone in case of emergencies, yes, but between classes, at lunch, put your phone away and talk to people."
Beyond cellphones "having no place in the classroom," the new relaxed rules put pressure on families, said Michele Aylaian, a parent of two students at Centennial and one at Burleigh Manor Middle School.
"Kids are going to feel that, if everyone has cellphones, they should have one, too," she said. "That's an unnecessary social pressure for a sixth-grader, to feel that they have to have a phone because everyone else does."
York worries allowing students to use their phones could draw a line between the haves and the have-nots, or kids who have smartphones and those who don't.
"If the county wants the child to have his or her phone in class, the county should provide them," she said. "I shouldn't have to take on the financial burden to buy a phone and pay for service for the county's use. I worry, too, that it will be a form of ammunition. I don't want my daughter ostracized because other kids have the latest, greatest technology and she doesn't."
The Centennial PTSA executive board recently voted in favor of the petition started by Matties (who is an executive board member but abstained from the vote, she said). That vote is not indicative of the parent opinion at the school, said Ann Marie Krahe, a mother of two Centennial students.
"I think it's ridiculous," Krahe said. "The kids were using their phones anyway and to not think so would be naive. Now, if they're allowed to use it in the hallways or cafeteria, there's no reason for them to leave class and go to the bathroom to use it.."
Krahe's daughters don't have smartphones, and they're not going to have smartphones any time soon, but the family "has never worried about trying to keep up with the Joneses," she said, and if students are going to tease others about not having the "latest and greatest," that was going to happen with or without the new rules.
Another Centennial parent, Michelle Berry, said she was happy when she heard about the new cellphone rules. Since the start of the school year, she feels morale among her three children has risen.
"I've always felt that if you told a kid 'no, no, no,' at a certain point, it doesn't work," she said. "Giving them this freedom helps their learning. It helps put them in a better frame of mind to focus in class, and it frees up the teachers and administration to pay attention to the important things, rather than trying to police my kid who's trying to send a text. Before, especially in the middle schools, they were so strict about it. Even if the school day was over, kids would get in trouble for taking out their phones in the hallway."
While the majority of petition-signers are from the Ellicott City area, people from all over the county have signed on in protest. Support for the relaxed cellphone rules also is spread across the county, from parents who said the rules make life easier on them as well as their children.
"I like the idea," said Jackie Coleman, a Hammond High School parent. "My child can call me if there is any emergencies and she can use her phone for any apps or as a calculator (to help with schoolwork)."
Besides, Coleman said, if her daughter isn't having her phone taken away from her, Coleman doesn't have to go to the school and pick it up, as was common practice before this year.
It's a sentiment echoed by Keri Ekert, a parent at Reservoir High School.
"I think it's very convenient for both the parents and the child," she said. "I can send a text without worrying if my child is going to get their phone taken away (if they text back)."
Laurel Leader intern Amy Armstrong contributed to this story.