Student use of electronic devices to be scrutinized by school board

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FARMINGTON — The ability of students to send text messages and take photos of anything, anywhere and post them on the Internet has schools imposing restrictions on how the technology can be used.

Board members from the Farmington-based Mt. Blue Regional School District are considering strengthening a six-month-old policy on how cellular phones and other electronic devices can be used during school and extracurricular activities.

“With the ability of more devices to take photos — now even video games have cameras — and with more Internet access, we needed to have a policy that had more teeth that could be enforced,” said the district’s Technology Director, Angel Allen.

“This is anticipatory and is being recommended by our legal counsel,” she said. “We want to make sure the people who use these electronic devices know that it is not OK to take pictures of anyone, anywhere.”

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Mt. Blue High School Principal Monique Poulin said the teachers are doing a good job managing the situation in their classrooms and no major problems have been seen.

“We want to have the authority to take away the devices if we have to,” she said.

The recommendation to upgrade school districts’ electronic devices policy came out of a statewide conference last fall put on by the Maine School Management Association and was presented by Drummond Woodsum, a Portland law firm that represents many Maine school districts.

The Mt. Blue Regional School District policy already allows school administrators to ban devices from school for a period of time for a student’s violation, and it has sanctions that range from detention to expulsion.

The existing policy also prohibits using an electronic device in a way that violates district rules or procedures such as the student code of conduct, harassment and cheating.

The proposed amendments go a step further.

“Accessing, viewing, posting, forwarding, downloading, or displaying any materials that are defamatory, abusive, obscene, vulgar, sexually explicit, sexually suggestive, threatening, discriminatory, harassing and/or illegal is prohibited,” according to the draft policy.

Kristin Plummer, the school-based educator for Sexual Assault Victims Advocacy Project in Farmington, said the problem is that photos and text messages can be used in ways that the person had not intended.

“What is scary for me about the use of cell phone photos and electronic devices is how quickly images of kids can get out into cyberspace,” she said. “I have heard of pictures being taken and the person was not aware it was happening. Then suddenly, it is all over the Internet.”

She also said texting has become a common way for bullies and domestic violence abusers to keep tabs on a victim or harass them.

Under the policy being proposed for the Mt. Blue Regional School District, the administration would have the authority to confiscate a device for as long as is reasonably necessary to use as evidence. Also, upon request, administrators can turn it over to police if the device is suspected of being used for any illegal activity.

Students are currently prohibited from using cell phones, hand-held computers, MP3 players and electronic games during class and any school activity. The only exception is when a teacher or supervising adults specifically authorizes students to use them.

The proposed policy would ban use of any still or video cameras in locker rooms and restrooms. Classrooms are already covered by the existing policy.

At present, students must obtain permission before photographing anyone.

Under the proposed rules, students must also obtain permission from anyone appearing in a photograph or video prior to posting on any social networking site or other Internet site.

“We are trying to stay one step ahead of the kids. If things like texting are being done inappropriately in school, that is not permitted,” said school board member Claire Andrews, who attended the fall conference and is on the district’s technology committee.

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