- Associated Press - Saturday, June 28, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Deciding when a child is old enough to handle the responsibility of having his or her own cellphone or similar electronic device is a tough decision that parents and guardians have to make in the modern digital age.

But whether a child is 6 or 16 when he or she first gets a phone, the matter of how they handle that device in school is one that districts wrestle with on an ongoing basis.

In Pennsylvania, the issue is primarily addressed at the local level with districts setting policy. For the most part, the use of such devices is banned during the school day. Some districts ban possession of such devices altogether while others allow students to bring them to school as long as they remain out of sight during the regular school day.

Steel Valley School District officials are examining a policy already on the books that allows students to bring devices to school but requires the devices be turned over to school officials. A district committee recently discussed allowing students in secondary grades to stow their devices in their lockers rather than check them in each morning.

“It’s a hard decision,” said Steel Valley school board president Donna Kiefer, who serves on the committee examining the policy. Kiefer said she understands the safety concerns of guardians who want to maintain an open line of communication with their children in the event of emergencies - noting her own granddaughter, a third-grader in the district, carries a prepaid cellphone for that reason - but knows cellphones can cause distractions in the classroom and open the door to other disciplinary problems including privacy violations and bullying.

“I’m undecided,” Kiefer said.

During the committee meeting, Steel Valley Superintendent Edward Wehrer said the district is considering the change because so many students are violating the current policy.

“It promotes unethical decision-making by our students,” he said.

District officials said there were 168 cellphone violations this year at the high school.

Trevon Murtaza, who just finished his sophomore year, admits he violated the policy.

Rather than leaving his phone with school officials in the morning, he said, “I snuck it in.”

“I just put it in my binder,” Trevon said. “I only got caught twice.”

For the second offense, Trevon said he was assigned a day of in-school suspension. He’ll be moving to a new district for the 2014-15 school year and said his reason for violating the policy was, “I always felt it was more secure with me than with the school.”

District officials said at least one phone belonging to a student had to be replaced this year.

That expense and the ongoing cost of dedicating time and manpower to handling the phones at the beginning and end of the day are among the reasons for considering a policy change.

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