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On iPod use, schools are calling the tune

Some hail benefit of such devices

By David Abel
Globe Staff / September 29, 2010

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At a time when many teenagers have cellphones or other electronic gadgets, school administrators are increasingly grappling with how to keep the devices from becoming distractions while allowing students a measure of freedom.

The ubiquitous technology has spawned a variety of policies that range from outright bans while school is in session to permission for them to be used for educational purposes in classrooms.

In Boston, district officials worked with a student advisory committee three years ago to craft a policy that allows students to carry cellphones but bans their use during school. The phones have to be off and not visible to teachers. As for other electronic devices, such as iPods, the district leaves it up to schools to set their policy.

“We want to be as clear as possible that the reason students are in school is to learn, and we want to minimize as many distractions as possible,’’ said Matthew Wilder, a spokesman for Boston public schools.

This week, school officials in Natick decided to forgo a vote on banning iPods and other electronic devices after students protested the new policy, contending that they can benefit learning.

Dozens of students flooded a School Committee meeting this week at Natick Town Hall, where they urged school officials to reconsider a ban at the high school this year of iPods, cellphones, and other devices in classrooms, study halls, and other academic areas. The restrictions have taken effect but must be approved by the school board.

The students said they could live with the cellphone policy, but they urged officials to allow iPods.

Senior Craig Dickey said that listening to music “helps me concentrate.’’ He likened the music playing on his MP3 to “white noise. It blocks everything else out.’’

Patrick Shaughnessy, another student, said it is “hard to focus without it. The ones not listening are the ones who are talking’’ and disrupting study halls, he said.

In Rockland, school officials this year have revisited a policy that allowed students more freedom.

Last year, the district allowed students to use cellphones and iPods during their lunch hour and study periods.

“The idea was that the policy would remain in effect unless it became a problem,’’ said John Retchless, superintendent of the Rockland School District.

At Rockland High School, Principal Stephen Sangster said the policy was working well for cellphones, but iPods had become problematic. Too many students were wearing headphones while walking the halls, making them unable to hear directions from teachers or others, he said.

So this year, he has allowed students to use cellphones during lunch, but he has banned iPods from school.

“I would say that policy failed miserably,’’ Sangster said, adding that theft had also become a problem.

“I was really hoping that it would work, but it didn’t. I would say it’s somewhat of a safety problem when students can’t hear you.’’

Officials at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said they leave it up to districts to determine their policies.

“The only statewide policy is that we ban all electronic devices when students are taking the MCAS,’’ said JC Considine, a department spokesman.

Ed Lenox, a Quincy lawyer who represents schools throughout the state, said the majority of schools ban electronic devices from being used on campus, and nearly all do during classes.

He said some have required students to keep them in their lockers.

“Almost universally, it’s recognized that using these devices is a distraction from the learning process,’’ he said.

Like a lot of districts, Brockton bans cellphones and other devices from being used during school, but some teachers are now sanctioning their use in class because they can aid instruction, said Jocelyn Meek, a spokeswoman for Brockton Public Schools.

“We understand times change, and cellphones are a part of kids’ lives,’’ she said, noting that students are allowed to carry phones.

“Every kid has a cellphone, and if we banned them, teachers would spend the entire day confiscating them. We just have to make sure they’re used for a positive purpose.’’

In Pittsfield, school officials have had a policy for the past three years of confiscating phones and other electronic devices.

“There’s always push-back, but we have a level of expectations now, and we communicate them clearly,’’ said Jake Eberwein, Pittsfield’s superintendent.

However, technology is changing quickly, he noted, and the policies will have to as well.

About 100 students, particularly those who speak English as a second language and those with special needs, are using the iPod Touch and the iPad, which the school provides to help them with their studies, he said.

“The bottom line is we’re focused on learning,’’ he said. “When we can use technology to support student learning, we’ll do that, but when electronic devices are distracting, we’re going to make sure to minimize that impact.’’

Globe correspondent Bob Clark contributed to the report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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