As technology becomes more ubiquitous in our everday lives, students, parents and school districts face unprecedented dangers and challenges in the name of modern convenience. The use of smartphones, tablets, social websites and more can all be great tools for young adults, but poor decisions made in a split-second can have long-term consequences with far reaching effects, the repercussions stretching long into adulthood. Perhaps the most prevalent form of technology used by children is, of course, the cell phone. But what can be a convenient way for parents to stay in touch with their children can also cause distractions, disruptions and even criminal conflicts if not used responsibly.
“First and foremost, cell phones can be disruptive to the instructional process,” said Schuylerville Junior and Senior High School Principal, Matthew Sickles. “If students are texting or surfing the Internet, they’re not paying attention to the classroom lessons. Of course, there’s a secondary concern regarding cheating,” Sickles indicated, who acknowledges that students with smartphones could potentially use the devices to look up answers to tests if not restricted. “Another concern that districts may face with cell phone usage is the potential for bullying, harassment, general rumor-mongering and ‘pot- stirring.’ The communication that happens via cell phones can bubble up into conflicts, and we want to avoid these [disruptive] issues in our schools.”
Cell phone and electronic communication policies differ from district to district, in some cases evolving as the students progress from elementary to middle and high school. In Schuylerville, student cell phones must be off and away during school hours. In Ballston Spa and Saratoga Springs, usage is restricted (unless approved by a teacher for instructional purposes) in the elementary and middle schools, while at the high school level students are allowed to access their phones between classes or, in some cases, in the library.
“I think the bigger question is on the other end,” said Dr. Janice White, superintendent for the Saratoga Springs City School District. “We don’t control 18 hours of the student’s day, and in that other 18 hours, what are they permitted to do, who is watching what they do, and who is looking on their cell phone to see what’s on it?”
It’s a concern that Saratoga County District Attorney James Murphy, III, also shares. As the county prosecutor, Murphy has seen a number of cases in Saratoga County where minors make poor decisions, sending sexually related text or photo messages over their phones that can end up as a criminal matter.
“Most of these sex messages occur between midnight and 5 a.m.,” said Murphy, “so we suggest that the kid not have access to the cell phone in the middle of the night.” Instead, Murphy recommends having a central charging location for phones during the night, a simple solution that prevents kids from texting or calling (inappropriately or not) in the wee hours of the morning and distracting them from sleep. Cyber-safety, said Murphy, is perhaps something that children and their parents have never had to think about until this generation. But by taking preventative measures, potentially life-altering mistakes can be avoided.
“We have seen cases where these [sexually explicit] pictures have gotten onto websites,” said Murphy. “I have a kid right now in this county where a 13-year-old girl’s picture got sent around and ended up on a Dutch porn site. It’s there to this day and could be there as long as forever. And we have no jurisdiction, obviously, over Holland, so this can affect her in terms of her life and her job, her reputation, college applications, all those kinds of things. It can be very, very disturbing and have life-altering consequences.”
As the law currently stands, any individual over the age of 16 who sends an inappropriate picture of a minor can be charged with promoting child pornography, an offense punishable by substantial time in state prison. The punishment is connected to an aging law first written in the late 60s and early 70s, long before cell phones. While Murphy indicated that district attorneys are given broad discretion in terms of prosecution, pursuing a child pornography charge and sentence is technically an option.
“In a bigger sense,” said White, “we need to do a better job as a school district of making sure this information gets to a wider audience of parents. We have a responsibility to the community to help parents and provide information that can assist them in their work.” Saratoga Springs will host a cyber-safety workshop on October 22 (see sidebar for details), and Murphy will host several information sessions at Saratoga Catholic and Shenendehowa schools in the coming months.
“The saddest thing about this piece is that these [inappropriate texts] can do more permanent harm than other more innocuous things that are much more temporal. Once it’s out in cyberspace, you’re not going to get it back,” said White.