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Citing academic, social concerns, Ionia Middle School bans student cell phone use during school hours

By Steve Gunn
IPS News Service

IONIA - Citing deep concerns about student academic performance and social development, officials at Ionia Middle School have decided to ban students from using cell phones during school hours, beginning in the new school year.

Student's cell phones will be required to remain in their lockers from the beginning to the end of the school day - 7:40 a.m. to 2:35 p.m.

Any student cell phones seen in use during those hours will be confiscated by school staff, and will have to be picked up by parents at the school office. Students will not be allowed to reclaim their cell phones on their own.

Wayne Piercefield

The new rule is one of several changes to the middle school student handbook that were unanimously approved by the Ionia Board of Education at a meeting on Monday night.

The change does not affect students at Ionia High School.

"The staff overwhelmingly agreed that a consistent school-wide policy to ban cell phones was paramount to the success of our students, both academically and socially," Ionia Middle School Principal Wayne Piercefield said in a written statement that will be part of a letter that will soon go out to parents.

"There have been numerous studies over the past couple years tying the increase in adolescent depression to the increased use of digital devices and social media.

"Our new policy says that student cell phones must be kept in their lockers from 7:40 a.m. to 2:35 p.m. if they are brought to school. We look forward to partnering with our parents to continually support both the academic and social growth of their children and are confident that this is a move in the right direction."

The decision to ban cell phones was made following consultation with the entire middle school staff, according to Piercefield.

"At the end of every school year we do a process, to determine what we need to continue, what we need to stop, and what we need to start doing," said Piercefield, who estimates that a large majority of middle school students have cell phones. "Teachers fill out a document as part of that process, and when we looked (at the feedback) as a team, about 95 percent of the teachers mentioned the problem of allowing cell phone use at school."

Piercefield said the decision was based on both academic and social concerns.

Ionia Middle School students have never been allowed to use their cell phones in class, but that is difficult to enforce when they have the devices with them, Piercefield said. Students are easily distracted by the presence of the phones, and the temptation to log on to social media or exchange messages with others.

"Our policy has been that they are not supposed to be out in class, but they are still looking at them," Piercefield said. "It's one of those super hard things to enforce when the phones make it inside the classroom. If a student is struggling emotionally over things in social media, it's hard to concentrate on academics."

The school staff is also concerned about student social development. Middle school students, in grades 6-8, are at an age when they should be starting to form more meaningful relationships with their peers, but far too often that process is interrupted by the distraction of cell phones, according to Piercefield.

"Our goal as educators is to help students socially and academically," Piercefield said. "Middle school is such a formative time of their lives. During lunch periods last year 50 to 60 percent of students were looking at their cell phones instead of interacting with peers. We want to get kids talking with each other and creating positive relationships."

Piercefield also said social media content has been the cause of numerous disciplinary issues every school year.

While the middle school cell phone policy is brand new, Piercefield said the news has already leaked into the community, and the feedback he's received has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Everybody who has contacted me so far has been very positive and appreciative of the fact that we are taking a hard line on behalf of kids," the principal said. "There have probably been 5 to 10 people who have been extremely supportive and said we are going in the right direction.

"Undoubtedly there will be some people who disagree, but the research out there is pretty profound. Cell phones are a leading cause of depression among adolescents, and we want to lower that as much as we can." 

The Ionia High School cell phone policy - which says the devices are not to be used in class unless it's for an academic purpose - will remain in place, according to high school Principal Ben Gurk.

High school students will still be allowed to use their cell phones when they are not in class.

One reason cell phones are tolerated at the high school is because many students use them to sign up for "achievement hour," which is time set aside in the morning for students to get extra help from teachers in classes where they are struggling.

However, Gurk said the high school's cell phone policy continues to be monitored and evaluated, and could change in the future.

"i am reading more and more research about the negative facts about cell phones in classrooms," Gurk said. "I am leaning toward more of what the middle school has done. I've had discussions with staff and our student advisory committee, and we will make changes as needed."