Beyond the Headlines

"Cell phones don't cyberbully, people do."

Posted: Mar 29, 2012 10:46 AM ET Last Updated: Mar 29, 2012 10:46 AM ET
Earlier this week the RCMP were called to a junior high school in Lower Sackville. A distraught 13 year-old girl told school officials she had been "pressured" into taking revealing pictures of herself on her cell phone and sending them to a male student. He in turn, sent them to other students' cell phones.

This disturbing incident comes just days after Wayne MacKay submitted his report on Bullying and Cyberbullying to the education minister.

In his report, MacKay says "technology has forever changed the nature and scope of bullying, making it more insidious than ever." It says there is no escape because victims "can be reached at all times and in all places."

While acknowledging that a lot of cyberbullying takes place outside of schools, on nights and weekends,  MacKay recommends a pilot project to ban cell phones in classrooms, to give students, at least, some relief from the digital playground.

It was the only one of his 85 recommendations that was immediately rejected.

In an op-ed piece sent to news outlets this week, Education Minister Ramona Jennex says cell phones are "rapidly becoming valuable learning tools in the classroom". Borrowing a line from the pro-gun lobby in the U-S, Jennex says "Cell phones don't cyberbully, people do."

"Education needs to harness rather than ban such computing power for the benefit of students", writes Jennex.

After reading that, I called the education department to find out exactly how cell phones have become a "valuable learning tool".

Sue Taylor-Foley, the department's director of learning resources and technology services, was hard-pressed to come up with more than a handful of concrete examples. After citing several possible scenarios, she told me about one teacher who had his students scan a QR code on their smart phones to get their homework assignments. Students without cell phones simply wrote them down.

Tayor-Foley admits there are many ways teachers can use technology in the classroom without employing cell phones, but still, she fully supports her boss's refusal to consider a pilot project banning cell phones in classrooms.

"You want to be able to use a wide range of devices and help our students use those for productivity, for ethical purposes, for research and communication in an effective manner - we need to be teaching our students how to use all those devices effectively."

What's interesting though, is Jennex seems to have made her decision without a lot of consultation. A spokesperson for the Halifax Regional School Board, the province's largest, says they weren't contacted by the minister, or her department, for their thoughts on banning cell phones from classrooms.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union wasn't consulted either. Alexis Allen, NSTU president, says since the task force thinks it's worth a try, she's not opposed to a small pilot project, but she's not sure it would be effective.

MacKay's recommendation obviously raises a lot of questions. Who would enforce it? Would teachers be turned into cell phone police? How would you measure its effectiveness?

But with no further discussion on the recommendation, and an apparent arbitrary decision from the minister, Nova Scotians may never know the answers.

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About the Author

Brian DuBreuil is a veteran journalist with CBC News. He has won two Gemini awards for his work, and neither involved dancing or singing on a reality show.

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