School board might want to scramble cell phones

Friday, February 20, 2009

The policy on punishment for cell phone use by students will remain unchanged for the time being, the school board's policy committee decided on Wednesday.

Chairwoman Ann Tears discussed the proposed change to the policy with a Tennessee School Board Association legal advisor. She reported that he told her the new policy was all right, but parents would have to be notified by letter that it was being implemented. The advisor also pointed out that students would have to be entitled to a hearing, if they requested one when their phone was confiscated. He also thought it was necessary to add that teachers could not browse through a student's phone, but had to immediately hand it over to the principal.

"We could do it next year," said budget director Janet Wiles. "Then it would be in their student handbook. We could make it effective Aug. 1."

"I've been struggling with this since the other night," said committee member Curt Denton. He was one of the dissenters when the confiscation of cell phones policy was voted on and said he had been doing a little research on the Internet. Denton said that, according to what he found, for $1,600 you could buy a scrambling device that renders all cell phones useless while they are in the building where the scrambler is located.

"It's just an idea I'm throwing out," he said.

"I think the scrambler would work," said Tears. "Let's find somebody who's done that and see if it works."

"I know some colleges have," said Denton.

"That would be the simplest thing," said committee member Randy Perryman. "But remember it would stop teachers using their phones, too. I'm afraid the teachers will be very unhappy."

"We're attempting to do what they want us to do: control the cell phones," rejoined Denton.

"Even if you have scramblers," said Wiles, "You'll still need to have a policy."

"We'll get some more information for the next meeting," said Tears. "We've got time before the first of the school year - let's get it right."

The group moved on to discuss the zero-tolerance policy for alcohol. Tears reported that the TSBA advisor had told her that he did not recommend that they wrote a specific alcohol policy because of the problems this could create.

Wiles confirmed that Judge Steve Bowden had told her that if a juvenile goes to court (which they will do for an alcohol offence at school), the court will mandate appropriate rehabilitation and treatment.

"So if we don't put it in the policy, the court will take care of it if they are under 18," said Tears. "We're educators, not rehabilitators: we don't need to get into funding and monitoring treatment."

The committee approved a change to the employee drug-testing policy to include non-certified employees who drive a school system vehicles, not just school bus drivers who hold CDL licenses.

Then they heard from their guest, Larissa Delk, the director of food service.

The current policy is that students in grades K-8 are allowed to charge their breakfasts and lunches in the cafeteria for up to five days, and high school students may charge one day. No one is allowed to charge meals the last two weeks of school so that unpaid balances can be collected before the end of the school year.

"I have a problem saying 'no charges'," said Delk. "My ladies (in the cafeterias) are not going to let a child go hungry."

She explained that the number of children getting free and reduced-price meals has skyrocketed in Marshall County this year, with Marshall Elementary School the highest at 71 percent.

Delk wants a policy that is the same for all schools, and the director of schools said the same in his "Expectations" memo. Stan Curtis mentioned the possibility of offering an alternative meal to children who owe money, but principals are against this.

With the computerized systems in the cafeterias it is impossible for students to know which of their classmates is getting free or reduced-price meals, but a child eating peanut butter and jelly instead of a regular meal would be exposed as a non-payer.

Delk assured the committee that she made it as easy as possible for parents to apply for free or reduced-price meals.

"If we see a problem," she said, "We send home an application."

She presented a spreadsheet that showed the total of unpaid meals for the last two school years. In fact, the dollar amount went down in the 2007-2008 year, and the total for the two years is just $610.59.

"It has not been a problem in the last few years," Delk said, noting that Chapel Hill Elementary at one time had unpaid food bills in the thousands.

"Are you recommending to leave the policy the same?" asked Perryman.

"Yes," Delk answered. "I don't think it's a problem right now, though I know there's one principal scared it would get out of hand."

The committee thanked her for her input, and finished their meeting by deciding to go through the whole policy book, one section at a time, starting with section 6, the policies related to students, so that this would be ready for the 2009-2010 student handbook.

They scheduled another meeting for 5 p.m. Tuesday, March 17.