What Are They Listening To?

School board ponders headphone policy

“When I see kids with headphones on, it’s hard to think they’re in tune ...
James Quinlan - School board member

“When I see kids with headphones on, it’s hard to think they’re in tune ... James Quinlan - School board member

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So a kid’s sitting quietly in class, working on a project, filling out worksheets, maybe reading “War and Peace.”

No problem.

But wait: Maybe that is a problem: That kid’s wearing earphones that are plugged into his iPhone and stuffed into his shifty teenager ears.

Are they up to something? What if they’re listening to some anti-social rap music, getting their teenage aggression hormones all stirred up?

The question stirred a vigorous discussion Monday at the Payson School Board meeting as the board approved an updated policy on various codes, including the restrictions on the use of electronic devices in school.

In the end, the discussion proved mostly circular — but no one figured that out until a revealing, intermittently entertaining discussion on teenagers, their music and their attention spans.

Board member James Quinlan launched the discussion when he objected to a line in the policy that appeared to let teachers let students use earphones to listen to music in class.

“When I walk into a class and I see kids with headphones on, it’s hard to think they’re in tune with what’s going on in the classroom,” said Quinlan. “I’d like to see headphones banned in the classroom.”

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Payson Unified School District Superintendent Ron Hitchcock and board member Rory Huff confer during a school board meeting Monday.

Other board members asked Payson High School Principal Anna Van Zile to explain the policy — and whether headphones ever help.

Van Zile said teachers don’t allow students to use headphones when they’re talking to the class, but pacifying students with music during individual work and study time can yield benefits. That’s especially true for some special education students, since the music helps them tune out distractions.

Moreover, some studies have demonstrated that certain types of music actually increase comprehension and retention of information, she noted.

“The studies showed that certain types of music are better than others and it wasn’t classical music — more along the lines of music they typically listen to,” she said.

“But when they have headphones on, you have no idea what they’re listening to,” said Quinlan.

VanZile noted that when the district at one point banned earphones on buses it actually caused a problem. “Their behavior (on the bus) is much better when they’re plugged in than when they’re not.”

She noted that teachers and school policy do bar texting even during study periods. In that case, the teacher will confiscate the phone — and only return it if parent comes to the office.

But teachers can decide whether to allow students to listen to music during individual study periods. “Especially in special education classes, it’s a tool that we can take advantage of. But what Mr. Quinlan is talking about is the type of music the student is exposed to.”

“In elementary school,” said board president Barbara Underwood, who volunteers in classrooms routinely, “they use headphones all day long.”

But Quinlan persisted, fearing that if some teachers allow headphones other teachers will go along. “If you leave it up to the teacher, you get popularity contests going on. I would like to see a policy that says no headphones — that might be old-fashioned.”

“The reality is, we wouldn’t know what they’re listening to,” said VanZile.

“If I saw a student with headphones,” reiterated Quinlan, “I would make the assumption that there is not a lot of control of that classroom.”

Meanwhile, Superintendent Ron Hitchcock quietly read the fine print of the policy, before finally bringing the discussion to a close.

“Everything that has been said is correct,” he started, getting a good laugh. Then he read the policy that says students can possess, but cannot use the devices without the permission of the teacher for “educational or emergency” purposes.

Then he concluded, “It appears the policy as it exists is not being enforced.”

That satisfied Quinlan. “It’s allowed only for instructional or emergency use.”

As singer Paul Simon put it in some downright subversive lyrics:

“When I think back

On all the crap I learned in high school

It’s a wonder

I can think at all

And though my lack of education

Hasn’t hurt me none

I can read the writing on the wall.”

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