Cellphone videos pose new challenges for school administrators

Video: McClatchy High School teacher wrestles student

This cell phone video of a Halloween-costumed teacher wrestling a student in Sacramento's C.K. McClatchy High School Friday morning was widely circulated on social media. The teacher was suspended from his job and arrested.
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This cell phone video of a Halloween-costumed teacher wrestling a student in Sacramento's C.K. McClatchy High School Friday morning was widely circulated on social media. The teacher was suspended from his job and arrested.

A decade ago, before cellphones could record video and share it instantly, there was relatively little worry over how students might use devices on campus.

But smartphones have changed all of that. In recent weeks, viral videos have portrayed a teacher wrestling a student to the ground at McClatchy High School in Sacramento, a student tossing Florin High School’s principal to the cafeteria floor and a school police officer throwing a student out of her chair in South Carolina.

With the press of a button, students have gained power in confrontational situations with classmates or authority figures. They also can become provocateurs or citizen journalists by posting videos that go viral well beyond the campus community.

Robert Faris, sociology professor at UC Davis, said unanticipated recordings have become a reality because video cameras are everywhere. He sees some merits to posting video on social media but warned that it can also have unfair and negative consequences.

“A lot of injustices are recorded,” he said, “and until they get attention nothing is done about them.”

On the other hand, Faris noted, “there is a cycle of shaming and public outrage and outsized attention. It thrusts people into the limelight that may not want to be in the limelight or deserve to be in the limelight.”

The viral videos recorded on Sacramento campuses in recent weeks followed a larger trend in which individuals have taken videos of police stops, hoping to challenge authority – and, in their view, increase transparency – in ways that didn’t exist before.

At McClatchy High School on Oct. 30, two student videos showed English teacher David Fritz in a Halloween costume lunging into a seated student, pushing him out of his desk and onto the floor while apparently trying to grab his cellphone. The videos led to the teacher’s suspension and arrest that day on suspicion of willful cruelty toward a child. Police said later the teacher showed signs of alcohol impairment.

At Florin High School, Principal Don Ross was tossed to the floor of the cafeteria Oct. 26 when he tried to break up a fight involving several students, an incident that drew national attention after a student video surfaced online. Ross said later the widespread publicity was “hurtful” and disruptive and not reflective of campus life. Ross and two other school officials suffered minor injuries, and three juveniles were arrested.

Initially, the district suspended the 15-year-old girl who captured the fight on her cellphone, citing her for “willful defiance” and specifically noting that she had recorded the altercation and admitted posting it on social media. That disciplinary move drew questions from the girl’s parents and free speech experts.

On Monday, the school cut her three-day suspension short and erased it from her record. Florin administrators believed that students walking toward the fight and recording it “caused a safety issue because it prevented them from being able to apprehend the boy involved in slamming Mr. Ross” to the ground, according to the girl’s mother, Delia Orosco.

With teens wedded to their cellphones throughout the school day, many districts are scrambling to address the devices’ potential pitfalls while retaining enough access that students can take advantage of their classroom benefits.

Three area school districts – Sacramento City, San Juan and Folsom Cordova unified – report that detailed cellphone policies tend to be developed at individual campuses, not the district office. Even then, teachers do not agree on how students should use cellphones.

There are video cameras everywhere. So it’s going to happen and authorities should be prepared to handle it.

Robert Faris, sociology professor at UC Davis.

The Folsom Cordova district in August launched a “Bring Your Own Device” effort, establishing a Wi-Fi network on every campus in the district and allowing students and staff to use their cellphones for educational access. Students who participate sign an agreement to follow the rules on “appropriate cellphone use.”

“We’ve tried to be proactive and lay the groundwork to have the infrastructure in place,” said Pam Oien, lead teacher for education technology at Folsom Cordova. She said she expects an increasing number of teachers to make use of the technology as they become more familiar with its capabilities and as the numbers of devices proliferate.

Teresa Stanley, president of the Folsom Cordova school board, said students with cellphones have become “a practical reality. So our goal for the school district was to make sure they were not a disruption. Our policy allows for kids to use them” during non-instruction times.

Gabe Ross, spokesman for the Sacramento City Unified School District, said district officials have been discussing a more cohesive policy that would reconcile dual goals of protecting student privacy and fostering technology in the classroom, especially with the introduction of Common Core State Standards, which rely on interactive learning.

School board policy broadly addresses use of electronic devices, including cellphones, Ross said. “There are some restrictions to students,” Ross said. “But it doesn’t specifically define what appropriate use is or isn’t. I think that’s something we need to look at in our district. Right now (the policy) is school by school and, within a school, it’s sometimes class by class.”

At Burbank High School in Sacramento, teacher Larry Ferlazzo noted that cellphones “can certainly be a major distraction.” But he said they also are a vehicle for doing online research when a student doesn’t have other online options.

“I will certainly let my students use their cellphones for research,” he said, “and I’ll ask for their word” that they use it for that purpose. “We also talk about trust, and how that’s important.”

At San Juan Unified, policies also vary from school to school, said spokesman Trent Allen.

“There is not a policy that dictates when it is OK or not OK to have devices,” Allen said in an email. But, he said, “we do embrace the academic value of personal devices” by providing Wi-Fi access and electronic devices when a teacher authorizes it.

San Juan High School senior Tristan Bare recently served on a campus judicial panel in which he had to impose penalties on students who used phones despite a classroom ban on devices. Data are limited on how many teenagers take their phones to schools these days, but Tristan said it’s a large majority.

A Common Sense Media survey released Tuesday found that teenagers spend on average of nine hours consuming electronic media, from TV watching to Web surfing to playing music. More than an hour of that is spent on social media.

“When I come home and I’m done with my homework,” Tristan said, “I’m on social media.”

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