Should kids have phones in class? Crackdown takes aim at a top Kentucky school problem.

When teachers at Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School recently grew concerned that students’ cellphone use was interfering with learning, they made a unanimous decision to clamp down, according to principal Betsy Rains.

The school this fall imposed stricter rules and a renewed focus on teachers determining when cellphones can be used in classrooms. In class, personal devices such as cellphones are to be used for instructional purposes only, unless authorized by the teacher. Failure to keep an unpermitted cellphone out of sight results in phone calls to parents and potential removal from classrooms, Rains told families in an Aug. 26 email.

Students can be placed in an in-school disciplinary program called SAFE for two days. There, they will be allowed to complete school work.

Dunbar isn’t the only school in Fayette County or the state to rethink how often their youths can use mobile phones.

How and when students use cellphones in Kentucky schools “has plagued principals throughout the state,” said Jon Akers, director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety. “It’s awfully hard to get toothpaste back into the tube once you start letting kids use their cellphones like that. There’s an entitlement attitude that ‘I have a right to have that phone here.’”

The new Dunbar practices have ‘more kids motivated, more kids engaged, more kids paying attention to what I’m saying. I can teach them something, and I actually feel like they are learning,” science teacher Keia Scott-Newsome said on a recent Dunbar student video broadcast on ”It’s been great so far.”

Rains also told parents in her email that cellphones and other personal electronic devices may not be used to take pictures, videos or audio recordings of anyone without consent. Mobile phones can be used between class periods, in the cafeteria during lunch and before or after school. But students wearing headphones and earbuds in common areas are responsible for hearing announcements.

“The response to our new procedures has been overwhelmingly positive, “ Rains told the Herald-Leader.

Students tell Rains they have fewer distractions.

Griffin Roach, a junior at Dunbar, said in the Lamplighter student video broadcast that the new policy is “necessary, although it might not be the most fun thing in the world.”

“I think the new phone policy will benefit me in the long run, although it is difficult to have that adjustment happen.”

Many students don’t use cellphones responsibly in schools, Akers said. “I’m hearing far too many problems with cellphones in the schools to justify them being in student’s possession. We are seeing far too much sexting going on, we are seeing far too many threats levied through.. electronic devices. Cyberbullying is off the charts.”

Corbin Independent Superintendent David Cox said that in the past, students in his district were allowed to bring their phones to class for educational purposes. But Cox said a new 2018 policy required students to turn off their cellphones on campus, including in the classroom, between classes and in the lunchroom. They can carry the phones..

John Crawford, who is the principal at Corbin High School, said there are about 700 technological devices in the building that students can use in the classroom, so they don’t need cell phones.

Like Dunbar, the administration says results of the Corbin restrictions have been positive.

“I just think it’s made a happier kid to get away from their device,” said Crawford. In the cafeteria, he said, “instead of eight kids sitting at a table all looking at a cellphone ... they are actually looking and talking to each other, which I think is wonderful.”

Eric Kennedy, director of advocacy for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said districts can and do vary their cellphone approach. His group’s recommended policy would allow students to use their phones “during non-instructional time, if it does not disrupt the educational process. “

Heather Berry, a teacher at East Carter High School in Carter County, said past phone rules were less strict and students used phones to organize a fight or facilitate skipping school or to not pay attention in class.

This school year, cellphone rules have more teeth, Berry said. They are only allowed out in class at the teacher’s discretion and students who violate the policy get a warning. Subsequent violations can lead to confiscation or other consequences. She said she sometimes lets students conduct research on their phones under her supervision, but she makes sure they know the rules.. So far this school year, she has not taken any formal disciplinary actions over phones. Last year, Berry said she had four or five incidents.

Fayette County Public Schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said that all six of Lexington’s main high schools allow students to use cell phones at lunch and during class changes. Lafayette, Henry Clay and Tates Creek students can only use their phones for educational purposes and if teachers give permission.

At Bryan Station, Frederick Douglass and Dunbar, teachers post red signs to indicate that the classroom is a ‘no phone zone’ and green signs to indicate that phones can be used. At all six schools, teachers can give a verbal warning for the first offense. While at Dunbar repeat offenses can result in the SAFE program, at the other five schools, repeat offenses lead to having phones confiscated for various lengths of time, Deffendall said. Parents can retrieve the phones.

Henry Clay High School Principal Paul Little said students in some classes, such as art, may be allowed to use their phones to listen to music as they work independently if the devices do not deter learning.

While most of his students are compliant with cell phone rules, their attachment to the devices are a ‘sign of the times,’ said Little. “The cellphone is the computer, it’s the TV, it’s the entertainment center, it’s a communication device. It’s all in one. These kids ... some of them almost come short of a panic attack when you take their phone from them. It’s just what they are used to.”