A new cellphone policy that would allow students to bring phones to school but to use them only in extreme emergencies won approval from the St. Tammany Parish School Board in a committee meeting Thursday, making it likely that the change will be adopted at next week's board meeting.
Under current rules, students are not allowed to have phones on campus or school buses. But Superintendent Trey Folse indicated in May that he planned to revisit the issue.
The proposal he presented Thursday says that students must keep their phones turned off and cannot use them except in emergency situations involving an imminent threat to public safety that involves potential loss of life or injury.
Folse told the board that students are already bringing phones to school because parents believe they need to have them in case of an emergency.
Students also use the phones to contact their families concerning after-school activities. "They call to say, 'Practice is running late' or 'Can I stay for the basketball game?' These are things that they are doing now," Folse said.
The proposed change would bring the schools' policy in line with practice, he said.
Several School Board members applauded the proposal.
Neal Hennegan said he liked the change, although he asked why cellphones cannot be used on school buses.
Folse said buses are viewed as an extension of the classroom and that having dozens of students using phones could be a distraction to the driver.
Board member Sharon Drucker said she is happy to see the school system bringing the policy up to date, and Robin Mullet offered a personal perspective.
"I agree with Mr. Folse on this," she said, adding that her three children graduated from St. Tammany schools in 2002, 2004 and 2009. "All of them had cellphones in their backpacks," she said. But they knew that if they ever used them in school, there would be consequences, she said. One did so and lost phone privileges.
She called the new policy a good start.
Mary K. Bellisario raised a number of questions about the change, including how effective cellphones would actually be in an emergency.
She said she heard a presentation from the superintendent of schools in Columbine, Colorado, in the late 1990s. He said that during the school shooting there, the heavy use of cellphones overloaded the network.
Folse acknowledged that heavy use can have that result, even at football games in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
But he said that technology has improved since the Columbine school shooting. And regardless of what the policy is, Folse said, in the event of such an emergency, people will use their cellphones.
"That's the world we live in now," he said.
Drucker asked whether Folse's student advisory board had input in the proposed policy change, and he said that it had. But when she asked if the student board will have any say about what the punishment will be for violating the policy, Folse said no.
He said principals will have input.
Board member Dennis Cousin urged Folse to make sure there is uniform enforcement of the new rules.
The School Board members voted 14-0 to recommend adoption of the new policy when the board holds an official meeting Thursday, although Bellisario abstained.
This story was altered July 13 to reflect that Mary K. Bellisario abstained.