Schools and students face off in ‘smartphone wars’

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Schools and students face off in ‘smartphone wars’



In a middle school located in Eunpyeong District in northern Seoul, a morning announcement is made for students. “In order to create an academic atmosphere, we ban all use of cellphones during classes. Students who possess a cellphone, please turn it in and receive it after class.”

As soon as the announcement is over, Kim, a 34-year-old homeroom teacher, places a collection bag in front of her lecture desk. Inside the collection bag, there are pouches numbered with stickers from 1 to 33 that are big enough to fit nearly any cellphone. The width of a pouch measures about 40 centimeters (15.7 inches) and is made specifically to store multiple phones.

The look on students’ faces walking up to the lecture desk to turn in their cellphones is dark.

“I never use smartphones in class,” said one outraged student. “Why are they treating us like children?”

A few students even try to haggle with the teacher.

“I’m supposed to call my father who went to China for a business trip,” pleads student Kim Seong-pyo, 15. With a straight face the teacher tells the student, “I’ll give you your phone right before you actually make the call.”

After 10 minutes, 30 cellphones are sitting in the collection bag.

Students prepare for their first class after having their cellphones taken away. A few students pull out what they call their “double phone,” or spare cellphone, which they take out after the teacher leaves, and nonchalantly begin playing video games or using social networking services (SNS).

Jeong, 15, who has been turning in a dummy cellphone for two months, said, “You can’t tell my teacher about this. I’m managing a soccer-related club in SNS so I have no choice but to use my phone in classes.”

This is not the only school where teachers and students are waging a “smartphone war.”

In 2013, the Ministry of Education conducted a survey to learn each school’s regulations regarding cellphone possession and found that 58.7 percent of elementary schools, 85.6 percent of middle schools and 65.2 percent of high schools had confiscated cellphones at the start of school and returned them after school.

But the issue is that there are no clear standards for cellphone regulations. Current methods are decided by each headmaster. Some schools collect phones based on requests from parents or teachers while others have scrapped the practice after vigorous oppositions from students. Without any general criteria, schools have defended their positions despite students’ opposition by arguing that it helps create a studious environment. But students have argued that it is unfair to generalize and suspect that every student uses their cellphone in classes.

“Students who have no interest in studying still don’t concentrate even after their phones taken away,” said Kim Ju-seon, 18, a high school student in Songpa District of southern Seoul. “Students who are willing to participate in class concentrate even with their smartphones.”

Between creating a more academic environment and respecting the students’ desire to freely use their own property, the National Human Rights Commission of Korea sided with students. Last month, the commission issued its opinion on the matter by stating, “Banning the possession and use of cellphones in schools and confiscating them is a violation of human rights.”

“The confiscation of cellphones violates the freedom of communication,” said one high school student surnamed Kim, 18. “Communicating with family members and friends can be a means to overcome loneliness, but schools are restricting it.”

According to the commission’s investigation, Kim’s school not only takes away students’ cellphones but also punishes students who violate the regulation by giving them 10 penalty points and confiscating their phones for a month. From January to October of last year, a total of 107 students at the school had their phones taken away.

The commission has advised the headmaster of Kim’s school to relax the current cellphone regulations. The restriction of the use of cellphones is thought to violate general freedom of action and communication that is protected by the Constitution of Korea.

“When schools enforce restrictions on students that are over their discretionary power,” the commission added, “it can only be viewed as a violation of human rights.”

The commission’s action has left some schools deeply concerned.

“Expecting students to concentrate in class with their smartphones is just unrealistic,” said Chae, 29, a middle school teacher. “If there are no regulations on the use of smartphones, I don’t think I want to work as a teacher.”

Some say that when students secure their freedom to use cellphones, other students may have their study rights violated because of the distractions, creating a conflict between “communication rights” and “study rights.”

Some view the commission’s advice as an “unrealistic measure” that ignores the essence of teacher’s teaching rights and student’s learning rights.

“There are concerns of violating students’ learning rights and teacher’s teaching rights by permitting the use of smartphones,” stated Kim Dong-seok, a spokesman for the Korean Federation of Teachers’ Associations. “They are neglecting possible side effects that can occur if cellphone usage is allowed in schools.”

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