Sag Harbor School Board Limits Middle Schoolers’ Cell Phone Use

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Come September, students at Pierson Middle School will have to keep their cell phones not only silenced, but also out of sight and not in pockets or otherwise on their person, following the Sag Harbor School Board’s adoption on Monday of new rules governing cell phone use during the school day.

The new policy is a departure from the district’s previous policy of allowing middle school students to use their cell phones during lunchtime, the academic support period and with a teacher’s permission “for an instructional purpose.”

According to the new rules, exceptions for students who have medical reasons that support the use of cell phones, such as the monitoring of blood sugar or disability-related adaptive purposes, will be handled on a case-by-case basis by the administration.

The policy also outlines consequences for those who break the rules: cell phones will be held in the main office for the remainder of the school day for the first offense; for the second offense, cell phones will be held and a lunch detention will be assigned. For a third offense, cell phones will be held for five school days and in-school suspension will be assigned.

The school board voted 5-1 to adopt the new cell phone rules, dubbed “option 1,” after making a few changes to the originally proposed policy. The majority chose “option 1” over “option 2,” which would have allowed cell phone use during academic support and otherwise with teacher permission and supervision.

Board member Susan Schaefer voted against the more restrictive option 1, instead voicing her support for option 2. Alex Kriegsman cast his vote remotely for option 1 via video conferencing; Monday’s meeting is thought to be the first time a Sag Harbor school board member cast votes in such a way. Board member Susan Lamontagne was absent.

Before they cast their ballots, some board members cited a variety of factors that concerned them, such as scientific research on the impacts of cell phones on children’s academics and developing brains.

Indeed, Dr. Michael Ungar, an author and researcher who studies risk and resilience among youth, noted earlier this year in Psychology Today, “There is definitely something addictive about the ping of a text and the scrolling counter telling us how much others ‘like’ us. It’s made us all (children and adults) into gamblers, sitting in our bedrooms just like slots players sit in windowless casinos, forgetting the time of day, addicted to the next spin and the possibilities it brings. There’s more bad news, too. Seems that with all that online addiction is also coming more bullying, which is only fueling our kids’ anxiety.”

According to Sag Harbor School Board president January Kerr, the district had received six emails leading up to Monday’s meeting “requesting total bans” and two emails in favor of keeping the existing policy in place. She also acknowledged the conversation happening locally on social media about this issue.

“For schools who want students to use their phones as a computer, it is better to just let them use a computer,” she said. “Studies show that kids’ academic performance actually goes down with the mere presence of a phone in class.”

Board vice president Diana Kolhoff advocated for “no cell phone use at all” in school, and favored the elimination of a clause that would have allowed teachers to allow phones to be used for instructional purposes.

Ms. Kolhoff also said she thought cell phones don’t belong in use during academic support and that she already has the “suspicions that academic support is not the most productive time of the day. I feel like if we do value that as time for kids to get things done, then whatever it is that’s on their phones can wait.”

Board member Chris Tice pushed for an adjustment requiring students to keep their phones in their lockers.

“You hear it all day long, the zing, zing, zing,” she said. “My concern is if it’s physically on them, they are getting cattle prodded. Research shows that is a huge distraction and it’s a deterrent to their learning.”

Ms. Kolhoff said she thought the locker requirement would be hard to enforce.

“This is already going to be a tough transition,” she said. “I would just support trying this for a year and if we feel like we need to tighten it up, we can do so.”

Board member Jordana Sobey offered a compromise — “maybe it’s mandated that it’s not on your person. It could be in the locker, it could be in the backpack,” she said — and Pierson principal Jeff Nichols agreed.

Ms. Schaefer acknowledged the scientific research but said students should be allowed continued access to their phones during academic support. “You’ve taken [their phones] away from them all day,” she said. “I think teachers are able to support them and say yes or no.”

The policy formally limits students from having “cell phones or electronic devices” on them during the school day, with the school board leaving it to the administration to specifically define what “electronic devices” means.

During Monday’s first public comment session, one person spoke about the cell phone policy. Nancy Hallock, the president of Pierson’s PTSA, said while the PTSA did not have a formal opinion favoring one option over the other, the group wanted the administration to consistently enforce whichever option was to be enacted.

“Any policy is really only as effective as the enforcement of it,” she said.

New Middle School Principal Salary Set

As a follow-up to its July 9 decision to establish the position of Pierson Middle School principal, the Sag Harbor School Board on Monday agreed on a salary range for that position.

The board voted 6-0, with member Susan Lamontagne absent, to negotiate a principal’s salary between $150,000 and $165,000 for the person eventually appointed to fill the position. The current middle school assistant principal salary is $135,746.

The board followed the recommendation of superintendent Katy Graves, who said the district needs to offer competitive salaries in a region that has a high cost of living.

“We have to hold onto people and make sure that we’re doing our best,” she said. “I think traditionally Sag Harbor has gone low and we’ve seen turnover, but we haven’t seen turnover in our principals.”

Board members had also compared middle school principal salaries, along with their length of employment and student enrollment, from Westhampton Beach to East Hampton and from Riverhead to Greenport. Those salaries averaged out to $175,606. One administrator in the comparison oversaw as many as 798 students. Another had been in the position for 18 years, prompting board member Chris Tice to say, “it’s not really apples to apples.”

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