Could cell phones be banned in Stamford schools? Kids, school board members examine privacy vs safety.

STAMFORD — Student privacy, safety and religious diversity were examined during a recent meeting of the Board of Education and members of its Student Advisory Committee.

A recent fight at a district middle school allegedly sparked by social media that left one student badly injured has raised concerns from administrators about students’ use of cell phones.

That concern could lead to a new district policy, since Stamford Public Schools currently does not have an overarching rule for cell phone usage. Instead, individual schools set their own rules — and even then, enforcement can be varied.

“Some teachers you know not to have your phone out, and some teachers you know it’s OK if you have your phone on your desk or if you’re using it in class,” said Samantha Samuel, a student at the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering, during a meeting of the Board of Education’s student advisory this week.

Board member Becky Hamman said she’s worked in districts with a districtwide cell phone policy and seemed supportive of introducing one in Stamford.

“I understand students have rights with cell phones but when people’s safety is at risk because of cell phones, that is pretty serious,” she said.

In late April, five students at Cloonan allegedly attacked another in a school bathroom. The child sustained a head and knee injury.

Earlier in the school year, Cloonan students also filmed themselves taking part in a TikTok Challenge in which they used their hands to imitate firing a gun, directed at a camera.

During a community meeting a week ago to discuss the district’s response to the alleged April attack, administrators spoke about what they said was the role of cell phones and social media on an increased level of violence at the school.

Cloonan Principal David Tate told parents that if they got their children to keep their phones at home, “it would help significantly.”

Taking cell phones away from students comes with privacy concerns, since teachers or administrators could have access to a student’s personal information, including bank account data.

“We’d be excited to jump all over the cell phone policy as long as it jumped into some sort of privacy discussion as well,” said Bob Kocienda, the program coordinator for the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council.

Said Board president Jackie Heftman, “I think that there are going to be a lot of considerations that would have to be taken into account when we’re looking at adopting a (districtwide) cell phone policy,” she said. “And the first consideration is do we want one at all?”

She suggested that the discussion of a new policy should start with people inside the schools — administrators, teachers and students.

“We, the board members, are not in the schools on a daily basis,” she said.

Zoe Goldberg, another student at AITE, said she hasn’t noticed an issue with phones in the school. In fact, she said, having a phone has come in handy when she needs to send an email to a teacher or send messages to other students in the Mayor’s Youth Leadership Council.

“We use them to communicate all the time,” she said.

Also during the student advisory meeting, members briefly discussed school prayer.

Samuel asked if it would be possible to have prayer rooms inside of schools for students that request them.

Associate Superintendent for Teaching and Learning Amy Beldotti said such requests have come up in the past, particularly around the Muslim holiday Ramadan, and the district accommodated students. It’s trickier at the elementary level, however, because younger students cannot go unsupervised, she said.

She said the district is looking at a way to create spaces for students to pray.

“We are looking at codifying that in a policy so that we make sure that we are respectful of all religions without imposing anyone else’s religious beliefs or prayer practices on anyone else,” she said.

Another challenge, she said, is that some students prefer not to be in the cafeteria when they are fasting for religious reasons.

“We have limited space in our buildings sometimes but we can always find a quiet little spot to accommodate student’s religious practices,” Beldotti said.

ignacio.laguarda@stamfordadvocate.com

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