Greenfield School Committee backs new technology to curb students’ cellphone use

  • DEBARGE

  • PROIETTI

Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2022 7:25:18 PM

GREENFIELD — With a majority vote of support from the School Committee, and mixed reviews from the community, administrators are moving forward with plans to use magnetic cellphone pouches where students’ phones would be locked during the day.

Superintendent Christine DeBarge, who ordered the pouches, previously said the start-up cost is about $16,000, which would cover students at the middle and high school levels. After that, the reoccurring cost is about $12,000 per year, depending on student enrollment. The pouches are created by Yondr, headquartered in San Francisco.

“I did purchase the pouches, because it was a better decision to have them and potentially change our minds and be able to return them, then to make the decision to move forward and … not be able to get the devices,” DeBarge told School Committee members on Wednesday, adding that she has confirmed the cellphone pouches can be returned if the administration changes course.

School Committee members Elizabeth Deneeve and Kate Martini voted against a motion supporting the initiative.

“We’re not seeking balance here,” Deneeve said. “I think that moving to this extreme edge without actively engaging parents and giving them time to gain trust is … putting the cart before the horse.”

According to Chair Amy Proietti, the emails that the School Committee received in the last month regarding cellphone pouches were mixed in nature, with “the vast majority” speaking in support and others expressing concern.

The handful of parents who spoke Wednesday evening, however, were largely in opposition to the idea, in part because of the appearance of a “top-down” approach to decision-making, but also because they felt it failed to address the problem at its root.

“The problem is bigger than the cellphones,” said Bram Moreinis, a Greenfield parent who teaches digital literacy in Springfield. “I think we should address the problem at its root, which is respect for the teacher, respect for each other and respect for the students.”

Greenfield resident Paul Jablon, a former public school teacher, echoed Moreinis’ concerns.

“Any money we spend on this really should be spent on the teachers … working out methods of empowerment and giving kids, every kid in middle school and high school, skills in conflict resolution,” Jablon said. “Take that $16,000 and you can get training … for them to have the skills.”

Another parent, Ann Childs, said she felt the way in which this decision was made felt “adversarial,” and that it didn’t demonstrate an effort to “earn back parents’ trust.”

DeBarge told School Committee members last month that cellphone use during school hours is connected, in part, to patterns of “disruptive behavior” committee members were informed about throughout the school year. Last fall, students, parents and teachers spoke during an emotional School Committee meeting about their concern for behavioral issues causing near-daily disruptions at the middle and high schools.

The pouches — which phones would be locked in as students enter the building — are backed by both acting Police Chief William Gordon and State Police Trooper James Carmichael, DeBarge said.

In addition to an informational session held earlier in the week, DeBarge said the district intends to send out more resources to families at both schools.

“It was not an easy decision,” she emphasized. “We had an urgent situation that the staff raised, and the administrators are trying very hard to support them in the way that they feel will get the school back to a positive learning environment.”

She also addressed comments that the money could be better spent on a paraprofessional, for example.

“(The expense) is sizable enough, but it will not pay for a paraprofessional,” DeBarge said. “A paraprofessional makes more than we would be able to pay for the money we’d be using for this.”

School Committee member Glenn Johnson-Mussad said that although the pouches aren’t necessarily the route he would have taken, he understands the “almost desperation” of teachers and administrators.

“I’m in a space of thinking if this is what you want to try, I think we should give it a shot,” he said. “I also think it’s a sustainable investment. … I think trying things and evaluating things is important.”

He added that the $16,000 likely wouldn’t be a sufficient amount of money to provide training that would “really make a difference.”

Martini, however, felt differently.

“I think we need to be respectful of modern parents, parents who are parenting now … and not expect people to step away or give up the tools they have available to them to keep their child safe in an increasingly dangerous world,” she said. “These pouches are easily thwarted. It doesn’t take away the behavioral moment that teachers need to deal with when a student isn’t following rules, which we already have.”

Responding to a point raised last month by Johnson-Mussad about having “objective, measurable goals” for the initiative, DeBarge said that was a “reasonable request” for the committee to ask.

“If it works, wonderful,” DeBarge said. “If it doesn’t work, we would certainly know that, I expect. But to continue going the way we were last year is unsustainable and is not healthy for anybody in this environment.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the final vote. Two Greenfield School Committee members, Kate Martini and Elizabeth Deneeve, voted against a motion supporting the cellphone pouch initiative.


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