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Originally published September 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 4, 2007 at 11:10 AM

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Controlling cellphones in class has no easy answer

"No texting in class" is obvious, but can schools forbid students from shooting photos and posting them online? And what about cyberbullying?

Times Snohomish County Bureau

Back to school

School starts this week for most area districts

Today: Bellevue, Edmonds, Northshore, Lake Washington, Mercer Island, Kent, Marysville, Renton, Riverview, Federal Way, Vashon, Tukwila, Tahoma and Fife school districts

Wednesday: Everett, Seattle, Issaquah, Snoqualmie Valley, Shoreline*, Auburn, Highline, Monroe, Mukilteo, Arlington, and Lake Stevens school districts.

* Shoreline's teachers union has authorized a strike to begin Wednesday if a contract agreement isn't reached by this morning. See seattletimes.com for updates.

Nikita Jensen can't help but laugh.

The Lynnwood High School senior has just been asked whether her school effectively monitors cellphone use, a question she finds highly amusing.

Students aren't allowed to use them during class, but kids "don't pay attention," she said.

"We'll be sitting there, and we'll flip them open and text anyway," said Jensen, 17.

In the past several years, since cellphones have become as crucial a back-to-school accessory as a new pair of jeans, schools in the Puget Sound area have been battling them with varying degrees of success.

School districts from Seattle to Bellevue to Edmonds haven't developed strict guidelines on personal-technology use because they haven't had to deal with serious incidents.

But now they're faced with a meaty challenge: how to police the more complicated technology offenses — such as a student taking an unwanted photo or video on school property and posting it on the Internet. Or a student caught "cyberbullying": harassing other students using cellphones, the Internet and other technologies during and after school.

"This cyber issue is very gray," said Michelle Trifunovic, principal of Edmonds-Woodway High School. "I think all schools are struggling with it."

The Seattle and Bellevue districts allow schools to determine the rules and don't have all-encompassing policies.

As a result, schools have varying degrees of strictness, said Ann Oxrieder, spokeswoman for the Bellevue School District, which has 27 schools.

"None of them have a wide-open, bring-all-your-electronic-gear policy," Oxrieder said.

The Everett School District recently changed its technology policy to ban cellphones in locker rooms and bathrooms, district spokeswoman Mary Waggoner said.

However — like in Bellevue and Seattle — it's up to each school to monitor personal technology. "We want to make sure we have something in place that provides guidance for the kids," Waggoner said.

Kentridge video incident

The issue gained attention this spring when three students at Kentridge High School in South King County were suspended for shooting an unflattering video of a teacher and posting it on YouTube, a popular video-sharing Web site.

One of the students, Gregory Requa, sued the Kent School District in federal court over his punishment, alleging that the 40-day suspension violated his right to freedom of speech. Both parties withdrew their claims at the end of June, but not before the case gained national attention.

It illustrates the complexities schools face when trying to police personal technology, said Charles Lind, general counsel to the Kent School District.

"It's important to draw a distinction between conduct that occurs in the class and free speech that's occurring outside of the school environment," he said.

Edmonds-Woodway's 1,800 students can use their cellphones only during passing periods and at lunch time, but there are no specific guidelines on pictures or videos taken on campus, Trifunovic said.

A YouTube search for Edmonds-Woodway turned up dozens of videos, including many shots of teachers.

As a rule of thumb, school officials believe that if an unwanted photo or video taken on school property ends up on the Internet and causes a disruption, then there is grounds for discipline.

"You can have some general, blanket rules, but then when you get down to the nitty-gritty it's harder," Trifunovic said.

That sort of challenge was illustrated in the Kentridge case, when the Kent School District had to walk a fine line to determine the grounds for disciplining students.

Ultimately, the district focused on the sexual-harassment aspect of the case — the video features one of the students making pelvic thrusts behind the teacher and shots of the teacher's rear end — and the students' improper use of technology during class.

"Could a school punish someone for saying she's fat and ugly and a terrible teacher?" Lind said as an example, not referring to any particular instructor. "I would caution our school not to discipline a student for that."

Confiscating phones

Another thorny issue is disciplining kids once they've been caught text-messaging in class.

If a student was caught using a cellphone in class three times, Edmonds-Woodway used to keep the phone for a week.

But parents complained that they weren't able to get in touch with their kids and were paying for a monthly plan that wasn't being fully used, Trifunovic said. Parents were also concerned that the cellphone would be lost or stolen, even though the phones are kept in a locked cabinet.

Last year, the school changed its policy so that on the third offense, parents must come pick up the cellphone before their child can start using it again.

Before the end of the 2006-07 school year, Edmonds-Woodway had already logged 580 third-time offenses.

"A couple of times during the year, we would get on the overhead system and say, 'Kids, remember to turn off your cellphone today,' Trifunovic said.

Parent Jan Barnes, whose daughter Adel Barnes is going into seventh grade at Alderwood Middle School in the Edmonds district, said it's important for schools to clearly define the rules for using cellphones and other technology.

"If the consequences are clear, then those are the consequences," she said.

Kirsten Orsini-Meinhard: 425-745-7804 or seattletimes.com">kmeinhard@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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