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New year, new rules: Red Wing starts school with new cellphone, advisory changes

With school starting, students will return to the classroom with changes awaiting them.

Most notably, no more cellphones in class, no advisory class and no backpacks.

The discussion on these areas has been going on since last year, with faculty and administration working together to find a solution to a problem plaguing the district.

Red Wing High School Principal Todd Herber has talked about the policy changes over the summer and presented his final time before the school year started Aug. 20.

Cell phones, backpacks = out

The high school will no longer allow cellphones in class, but must be stored in the student's locker during the class period. The school day will have longer passing time, adding two more minutes to the previous five minutes available, and having students able to use their cellphone during the lunch period.

Along with cellphones, students will no longer be allowed to bring backpacks into classroom. Students can use the extended passing period to bring their books from their locker.

For backpacks, the possibility of smuggling in contraband and having them be a distraction is a high probability. Having backpacks stay in lockers makes school safety more manageable.

When it comes to cellphones, Red Wing High School teacher Scott Bender says he's kind of an outlier at the school, not having an issue with cellphone usage in class.

Bender said in his classroom, students are expected to turn off their cellphones and place them into a bin.

Currently the policy states if a student cellphone were to go off once, the cellphone would be taken by the teacher and the student could pick it up at the end of the class time. A second offense, the phone is taken to the office where the student could pick it up at the end of the day. A third offense, the phone is taken to the office where the student's parent would pick it up at the end of the day.

However, Bender practices what he preaches as well: if his cellphone were to buzz and distract the class, a student would take his cellphone down to the office for the day.

Even though he hasn't had instances of discipline regarding cellphones, Bender has been an advocate and one of eight members, including faculty and administration, trying to improve the school's climate.

Bender spoke during Aug. 20 school board meeting, and others as well, asking the board to support the district's decision on cellphone usage.

"How can we change school climate and school culture if we don't change anything?" Bender said in a phone interview with the Republican Eagle.

Herber found that cellphones are a regular disruption in the classroom, with buzzing and ringing taking students away from the instruction time.

In addition to an added disruption, Herber and Bender said cellphones can be used for cyberbullying and harassment.

Herber said the district has encountered issues, multiple times a week, of cyberbullying in addition to the constant disruption a cellphone can cause.

Bender said safety is paramount in the eyes of the Red Wing School District. Having a cellphone that can encourage truancy, the sending of lewd or sexually suggestive pictures, or teasing a fellow student does not make the district safe.

"If we have a group of kids using cellphones as a weapon, they're not safe," Bender said.

Herber said most teachers aren't even using cellphones at this time as a learning device. However, the district has electronic learning devices available for students who need to use them for academic purposes.

When it comes to staff, Herber said they've lost the battle of student engagement when that first text vibrates in a students' pocket. Even more so, if teachers don't all have a uniform approach to this cellphone policy, it can create a problem.

"Teachers will decide what they're going to do, but if we hold students accountable, we need to hold ourselves accountable as well ... if I go into one classroom, it should look similar or the same to if I go into another classroom," Herber said.

Teachers will also be required to keep the cellphone stowed away during instruction time.

Herber and Bender are sensitive to the needs of a family trying to get a hold of their child, but increased passing time and the ability to contact the school directly shouldn't cause much of a schism as far as communication is concerned.

"If they need to get a message to their child, don't want to go through the school office, they can certainly leave a message on the student's cellphone," Herber said.

'Worst 28 minutes of the school day'

Advisory class was 28 minutes during the school day that was used for a number of different options including catching up on homework, NAVIANCE training and meeting with club or activities groups.

Now, the class will be gone, with class time going from 85 minutes to 90 minutes.

With all of these options, Herber said he has not seen a increase in advisory participation since coming to the district five years ago.

The class takes attendance, but it was not a mandatory requirement to be in attendance in order to graduate. The stress of trying to find students who skipped class, students who would walk around the building, or hide somewhere in the school was too great a burden to bear.

"That was a hard decision to make," Herber said at the Aug. 20 school board meeting. "This is the first time where I've really had to [talk to] support staff and say, 'you know what, we can't do this.' We can't move forward with this type of program, it just isn't working."

Bender, who again said he rarely had issues with students and advisory class, described advisory class as "worst 28 minutes of the school day" for some faculty.

The intent was good, but Bender said the time developed into a "free for all" for students.

"With 900 kids it was really difficult for that 28 minutes or whatever to keep track of them all because there was a fair number that abused our trust," Bender said.

Herber said there was "variability" in the way teachers handled their advisory class. As a result, it caused "unpredictable time and experiences." Herber continued to say that experience contributed to "a lack of social, emotional safety around the building."

Even students who were present in advisory class may have used it on their cellphone. Herber acknowledges that having a downtime and social time is valuable, but the time adds up during the school year.

However, the district doesn't want to get rid of the opportunity to get academic support and help students with career-college readiness.

The school board encouraged Herber to form a committee, that will be comprised of two school board members, students and faculty to find a new solution to advisory class. Herber said they hope to have an idea to implement during the second quarter of the year, sometime in November.

The district will not be cutting any clubs or activities, rather students will have to meet before or after school.

What comes next?

School starts Sept. 5, with students spending the first week reading through the handbook, understanding the policy changes, and learning expectations to be observed during the school year.

Herber said he has received a "mixed bag" of compliments and concerns from parents, but said he hopes parents agree that the steps taken by the district is to increase school safety and encourage learning.

Bender, who has spent 21 years in the district, said the district's steps shouldn't be looked at as a "punitive" measure and that he hopes the steps taken will show that school should be a positive place to kids.

"We're doing this for the good of our students ... it's for the kids, it's for their well being," Bender said.

Bender said last November that when a group of seniors approached him about not feeling safe in the building, it "just about broke my heart." Bender said he hopes the new changes will help decrease the anxiety and tension that has been growing inside the school.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

(651) 301-7873
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