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Area school districts fight cellphone distractions with policy changes


A dozen years after the iPhone was introduced, more local schools are beginning to crack down on cellphones in the classroom.

Craig High School Principal Alison Bjoin said the issue has resurfaced because of teacher concerns.

“Over the last several years, it has become the thing that we as administrators most frequently heard teachers say, ‘This is a problem,’” she said.

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Craig’s policy hasn’t changed, but the Janesville School District plans to enforce the rules more strictly, Bjoin said. Students are required to leave the devices in their lockers or place them in a pouch when they walk into the classroom.

If a student is caught with a cellphone during class, it will be taken away until the end of the day. A second offense will require parents to retrieve the device from the school office.

Bjoin said the “bell to bell” rule was created shortly after she joined the district in 2005. She hopes better enforcement improves compliance.

“The rule hasn’t really changed, but our need to enforce it has (changed) due to teacher feedback. Teachers are very happy that we’re providing clarity about the expectations and providing manageable tools to enforce the rules.”

Parker High School Principal Chris Laue has worked in education for nearly 30 years. Technology has advanced significantly since he began his career.

“It definitely has changed,” he said. “In the last 10 to 15 years, cellphones really started to make a presence as the technology has shifted with what everybody does.”

Anthony Wahl 

Cellphones have become an increasing distraction in local schools, officials say. School districts are fighting the problem by implementing rules and consequences for inappropriate use of the devices.

Parker students can use cellphones in class but only with approval from teachers. As examples, Laue mentioned listening to music during work time and using a phone’s calculator during math class.

Laue said the school works to show students that cellphones can be valuable tools when used appropriately.

“It would be very short-sighted to think that you can ban them, and there are some very good educational uses for cellphones,” he said.

“I think our responsibility as a school is teaching them when it is the right time and when it is not the right time.”

Students who use their cellphones inappropriately can have the devices confiscated for the day or for extended periods of time, Laue said.

He hopes to teach students a balanced approach to cellphone use that they can take to college and into the workforce.

“We’re trying to be very strategic in what we do,” he said. “We acknowledge the technology isn’t going away and there are educational uses for it, but we want to educate them. They need to be in educational, professional and social settings and know the appropriate way to use the tool.”

At Edgerton High School, a new policy this fall has district administrators hopeful. The policy is similar to Craig’s: Students can either leave phones in their lockers or place them in classroom pouches.

“This has been ongoing since students have carried smartphones around,” Superintendent Dennis Pauli said. “We just felt it was time.”

Edgerton High School Principal Mark Coombs said policing phone use was difficult for teachers, and it will help if students don’t have their phones in their pockets.

“In the past, it was out of sight, out of mind, but it has become an ever-increasing distraction. We’re not trying to be punitive; we’re just trying to get back that instructional time,” Coombs said.

While he anticipates growing pains, Coombs hopes students will realize they might not need their phones as much as they thought.

The Evansville School District also has decided to take cellphones out of classrooms.

“There was some grumbling at first, but it’s part of what we do now,” Superintendent Jerry Roth said. “As you change culture and expectations, it doesn’t take long for kids to be accepting of that.”

Roth said students didn’t complain much, and parents realized it makes sense to reduce distractions in class.

As smartphones become more advanced, they cause more distractions, Roth said. He doesn’t think students are distracting themselves from school on purpose, but technology is a larger part of today’s culture.

“Kids are connected 24/7/365. That’s just the way they operate now,” he said.

“I never look at technology or communication as a problem. I look at it as there is a time and place for it, and when you’re in an instructional environment … then you try to eliminate it as a distraction.”

Just how distracting?

A June 2019 Pew Research Center report says 96% of adults in the United States own cellphones, and smartphones account for 81% of phones used by adults.

A separate study by The Journal of Communication Education indicates students who are not using cellphones wrote down 62% more information, took more detailed notes and remembered more detailed information from lectures.

The study also shows students who are not using cellphones scored more than a full letter grade higher on a multiple choice test than students actively using their phones.

Courtney Schlegel, a licensed clinical social worker for Mercyhealth, works with area youth and families. She said cellphones have become a serious talking point.

“I think in the school setting it’s important for them to separate from phones because it allows them to focus on peer interactions and building skills for the future,” Schlegel said.

She often reads literature that points out student distractions related to cellphones.

She said one study suggested that it can take up to 15 minutes for someone to fully refocus on a task after an interruption such as a phone notification.

“Every time you’re distracted, that’s all kinds of time to regroup and get back to work,” she said. “For every single social media notification or text, are they ever fully getting back on track?”

Schlegel also pointed to studies that have linked screen time and too much social media interaction to anxiety and depression.

While she said social media and cellphone use alone doesn’t cause these issues, she hopes students realize they should have limits.

“Finding balance is the best outcome,” she said. “Putting your phone down in school, when you’re out with friends or out to eat with family—those things matter.”

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Seneca Foods' migrant housing proposal moves forward


Seneca Foods is one step closer to offering housing for seasonal migrant workers at its property on Janesville’s south side.

The Janesville Plan Commission on Monday unanimously approved a conditional-use permit for the food processing company’s proposed housing project and unanimously forwarded a favorable recommendation to the city council, which must give final approval.

Seneca also needs approval from the state Department of Workforce Development, which regulates migrant labor across the state, said Duane Cherek, city planning director.

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The company hopes to build five residential buildings to house about 150 workers during its busiest season from June to November, Cherek said.

Seneca would be restricted to housing that is occupied 10 or fewer months per year, Cherek said.

A sixth building will be constructed to house a cafeteria and amenities such as recreation space and laundry facilities, he said.

The company has hired seasonal migrant workers, primarily from Texas and Mexico, for years and typically houses them at local motels, according to previous reporting from The Gazette.

However, using motels for housing is not financially sustainable and does not offer the amenities Seneca wants, company officials have said.

Seneca hires 250 to 300 seasonal employees every year and is increasingly dependent on migrant workers, Cherek said.

The commission recommended that the city council amend an ordinance to allow migrant housing as a conditional use on land zoned M2, general industrial district, and that the council rezone Seneca’s property to M2 upon annexation from the town of La Prairie.

The conditional-use permit comes with these conditions:

  • Each residential structure must house no more than 30 overnight occupants.
  • Any efforts to expand must be reviewed by the plan commission.
  • The commission must review the conditional-use permit each of the first two years of operation.
  • The facilities must be removed if housing is discontinued for three consecutive years.

The commission held three public hearings on the project, one for each measure the commission considered.

Resident René Bue supported the project, saying it would provide better conditions for migrant workers and a sense of community.

Seneca provides on-site housing for migrant workers at its plants in Gillett and Oakfield. Officials from both communities wrote letters to city staff supporting Seneca’s proposal and saying the communities experience no issues with their migrant workers.

Cynthia Shackelford and Randal Stevenson, CEO and president of DeVere Company, respectively, wrote a letter to the city voicing concerns about migrant housing.

DeVere, which is adjacent to Seneca at 1923 Beloit Ave., makes cleaning materials and skin care products for commercial, industrial and institutional use. In their letter, DeVere officials expressed concern about housing workers with no long-term ties to the community. They wrote the workers might not understand property lines and walk across adjacent properties because of limited access to transportation.

They also worried about safety for their employees and property, theft of office and lab equipment and chemicals that could be used to make illegal drugs, vandalism, fire from improper cigarette disposal, and contamination of Food and Drug Administration-registered products.

Plan commission member Carl Weber said he wished DeVere representatives had attended the meeting so the commission could address their concerns.

He said those concerns were not unique to migrant workers and could apply to the general population.

Regardless of where migrant workers sleep, chemicals that could be used to make illegal drugs should be secured, Weber said. He said he had his own concerns that DeVere might not have adequate security for its products.

Trump: It looks like Iran hit Saudis, no military option yet


President Donald Trump declared Monday it “looks” like Iran was behind the explosive attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities. But he stressed that military retaliation was not yet on the table in response to the strike against a key U.S. Mideast ally.

Oil prices soared worldwide amid the damage in Saudi Arabia and fresh Middle East war concerns. But Trump put the brakes on any talk of quick military action—earlier he had said the U.S. was “locked and loaded”—and he said the oil impact would not be significant on the U.S., which is a net energy exporter.

The Saudi government called the attack an “unprecedented act of aggression and sabotage” but stopped short of directly pinning blame on Iran.

Iran denied involvement.

Trump, who has repeatedly stressed avoiding new Middle East wars, seemed intent on preserving room to maneuver in a crisis that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had immediately called Iran’s fault. Pompeo said Saturday, “Iran has now launched an unprecedented attack on the world’s energy supply.”

Trump, too, had talked more harshly at first. But by Monday afternoon he seemed intent on consultations with allies.

“That was an attack on Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“It wasn’t an attack on us, but we would certainly help them,” he said, noting a decades long alliance linked to U.S. oil dependence that has lessened in recent years. The U.S. has no treaty obligation to defend Saudi Arabia.

Trump said he was sending Pompeo to Saudi Arabia “to discuss what they feel” about the attack and an appropriate response.

One U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the U.S. was considering dispatching additional military resources to the Gulf but that no decisions had been made. The U.S. already has the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier battle group in the area, as well as fighter jets, bombers, reconnaissance aircraft and air defenses.

Trump, alternating between aggressive and nonviolent reactions, said the U.S. could respond “with an attack many, many times larger” but also “I’m not looking at options right now.”

American officials released satellite images of the damage at the kingdom’s crucial Abqaiq oil processing plant and a key oil field, and two U.S. officials said the attackers used multiple cruise missiles and drone aircraft.

Private experts said the satellite images show the attackers had detailed knowledge of which tanks and machinery to hit within the sprawling Saudi oil processing facility at Abqaiq to cripple production. But “satellite imagery can’t show you where the attack originated from,” said Joe Bermudez, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who examined the images.

“What the photos indicate is that someone planned a sophisticated, coordinated attack that really impacted the production of oil at this facility,” he said.

The U.S. alleges the pattern of destruction suggested Saturday’s attack did not come from neighboring Yemen, as claimed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels there. A Saudi military official alleged “Iranian weapons” had been used.

The Saudis invited United Nations and other international experts to help investigate, suggesting there was no rush to retaliate.

Jon Alterman, the chief Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Saudi caution reflects the kingdom’s wariness of taking on Iran.

“I don’t think there’s a great independent Saudi capability to respond,” he said. “You don’t want to start a war with Iran that you don’t have an idea how you’re going to end.”

In New York, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, condemned the attack and said that “emerging information indicates that responsibility lies with Iran.”

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Mark Esper suggested Iranian involvement, too. In a series of tweets after meeting with Trump and other senior national security officials, Esper said the administration was working with partner nations “to address this unprecedented attack and defend the international rules-based order that is being undermined by Iran.”

Iran rejected the allegations, and a government spokesman said there now is “absolutely no chance” of a hoped-for meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Trump at the U.N. General Assembly next week.

“Currently we don’t see any sign from the Americans which has honesty in it, and if the current state continues there will be absolutely no chance of a meeting between the two presidents,” spokesman Ali Rabiei said.

Downplaying any talk of imminent U.S. military action, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, told reporters at the White House that Trump’s “locked and loaded” was “a broad term that talks about the realities that” the U.S. is “safer and more secure domestically from energy independence.”

The new violence has led to fears that further action on any side could rapidly escalate a confrontation that’s been raging just below the surface in the wider Persian Gulf in recent months.