Cheating, bullying, taking and sending inappropriate photos - student cell phone use not only disrupts class, but in some instances the phones are being used in school to commit serious offenses.
Since the state Legislature allowed students to possess cell phones on campus this school year, school administrators and deans are dealing with a number of disciplinary issues with their use.
Avon Park High School Dean Tom Zwayer said there have been several instances of students bullying each other on the phone and several instances of students sending inappropriate photos on cell phones.
"I have had students say to me that they have been sent photos and I've actually seen some photos on the phone of very inappropriate ... nudity and so forth," he said. The photos have been sent while the students were in school.
"We've had them trying to use the text-messaging during tests," he said. One student was caught photographing a test, but not too many students do it because it is difficult to get a usable photo of a test with a cell phone.
After a previous policy that banned possession of cell phones (except in cars), students are allowed to have a cell phone that is turned off and stored in lockers, backpacks, cars, book-bags or other carried containers.
A cell phone is not permitted to be worn on the person in any fashion, according to the district's Code of Student Conduct.
Hill-Gustat Middle School Principal Chris Doty said most students abide by the cell phone policy, but the problem is pervasive for the students who violate the policy.
"It's an ongoing issue where we have students using their phones inappropriately and texting during classes ... passing information back and forth for tests and kids taking pictures that are embarrassing or even inappropriate," he said.
More and more cell phones are going off in class and things like that to the point where it's a classroom disruption, he said. "We've had some cyber-bullying types of events where they are saying texting things that are inappropriate to each other."
How does school staff learn of these instances?
"Generally it's a situation where students bring it to our attention when that happens," Doty replied.
Also, students have taken inappropriate pictures of other students and sent them to other students, he said. Last year an inappropriate photo was taken in a restroom. This year an inappropriate photo was taken off campus.
"I don't have any problem with kids if they have their cell phones as long as they are using them appropriately, but we have far too many who are not," Doty said.
Stiffening the penalty
Currently, according to the Code of Conduct, the consequences for a first-time violation of using a cell phone are: documented warning, confiscation of item, notification and return to parent.
A second offense includes those consequences plus one day of in-school suspension. A third offense includes two days of in-school suspension and the fourth offense calls for three days of out-of-school suspension plus loss of the privilege to possess a cell phone.
Students who use cell phones in a manner that also violates other provisions of the Code of Conduct, such as cheating or bullying, will face the consequences noted in the code for those infractions.
Doty, Zwayer and Sebring Middle Assistant Principal Jackie Allen believe the penalty should be increased for first-time use of a cell phone in school.
Doty said the violations turn into too many warnings and for many of the students it's not a one-time offense; they repeatedly violate the cell phone policy, he said.
Sebring Middle School exceeds the minimum recommended punishment for a first-time violator.
If the phone is on their person and is turned on, a student could be texting, cheating or taking pictures so the punishment is one day of in-school suspension for that, Allen said. If it rings in their book bag then they get a warning.
All of last year at Sebring Middle there were 74 violations of the cell phone policy. This year there have been 90 such violations.
The parents are the ones who really want to make sure their children have a cell phone for after school, Allen noted. That's not a problem if they keep it turned off and in their backpack all day long.
When a phone rings in class that gets 25 students off task, she said.
The district is starting to take input from schools on proposed changes to the Code of Student Conduct, Deputy Superintendent Rodney Hollinger said.
He noted the suggestion from Sebring Middle to "up the ante" for students who get caught actually on their phone - either texting or talking.
The District School Advisory Council will discuss possible revisions to the Code of Student Conduct at its meeting from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., Monday, in the Garland Boggus Board Room at the School Board of Highlands County, 426 School St., Sebring.