Student rates

Schools clash with parents over student cellphone ban

Cell phones – the ultimate distraction – prevent children from learning, say educators. But in attempts to keep phones away, the loudest reaction doesn’t always come from students. In some cases, it comes from the parents.

Bans on devices were on the rise before the COVID-19 pandemic. Since schools reopened, student behavior and mental health issues have given some schools even more reason to restrict access.

But parents and caregivers who had constant access to their children during remote learning were reluctant to give it up. Some fear losing contact with their children during a school shooting.

Shannon Moser, who has eighth and ninth graders in Rochester, New York, said she felt parents were pushed back when Greece’s Central School District began locking students’ phones this year. There is a form of accountability, she says, when students are able to register what is happening around them.

“It’s all so politicized, so divisive. And I think parents just have a general fear of what’s going on with their kids during the day,” Moser said. She said she generally held liberal views, but many parents on either side of the political divide felt the same way.

Amid scrutiny of topics such as race and inclusion, some parents are also seeing restrictions on cellphones as a way to keep them out of their children’s education.

More than a decade ago, about 90% of public schools banned cellphone use, but that figure fell to 65% in the 2015-2016 school year. As of the 2019-20 school year, bans were in place in 76% of schools, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. California and Tennessee recently passed laws allowing schools to ban phones.

Today, in particular, educators are seeing the need to keep students on task to recover from pandemic shutdowns, when many students have lost the equivalent of months of learning.

And many school officials may feel empowered to ban the devices, given growing parental concern about screen time in the pandemic era, said Liz Keren-Kolb, clinical associate professor of education at the University of Michigan. But she said parents’ views on the debate ran the gamut.

“You always have parents who want to have that direct line of communication and are worried that their child can’t have that communication,” she said. “But I think there’s more empathy and understanding for their child to put their device away so they can really focus on learning in the classroom and wanting that face-to-face experience.”

The Washington School District in western Pennsylvania implemented a ban this year as educators increasingly found cellphones to be a barrier. Students were on their cell phones in the hallways and at cafeteria tables. Some were calling home or answering calls in the middle of a class, said high school English teacher Treg Campbell.

Superintendent George Lammay said the ban was the right choice.

“We seek to increase children’s engagement and academic progress – without trying to limit their contact with families. That’s not the goal,” he said.

In some cases, parental refusal has led to policy adjustments.

In the school district of Brush, Colorado, cellphones were banned after teachers reported concerns about online bullying. When the parents spoke out, the district held a community meeting that lasted more than two hours, with most testifying against the ban. The biggest takeaway, Superintendent Bill Wilson said, was that parents wanted their children to have access to their phones.

The policy has been adjusted to allow cell phones on campus, although they must be turned off and out of sight. The district also said it would welcome a handful of students with unique circumstances.

“There’s no intention of saying cellphones are bad,” Wilson said. “It’s a reset to say, ‘How can we handle this in a way that makes sense for everyone? “”

In the Richardson Independent School District near Dallas, student cellphone use had been banned during school hours before officials offered to buy magnetic pouches to seal during the school day. Feedback from parents about the cost of the pouches and concerns about emergency safety led to a scaled-down plan to pilot the pouches at one of eight district colleges, Forest Meadow Junior High.

“We used to get in touch with our children whenever we wanted,” said Louise Boll, president of the Forest Meadow Parent-Teacher Association. “There was a lot of pushback and a lot of worry at the start of what it would look like, how it would play out, how is it going to affect us getting in touch?”

Children and their parents have largely adapted to the new policy, she said.

In online discussions of parent activists, there are plenty of advocates for banning cellphones. Some others, however, protested the bans in an effort to keep parents from seeing the “violence” and “indoctrination” inside schools.

Legal actions by parents remain rare, with the exception of an unsuccessful lawsuit brought by several parents against the ban on cellphones in New York schools in 2006, which was finally lifted in 2015. Yet the petitions against bans on cellphones in schools rose on Change.org this year, a spokesperson said.

There’s no perfect formula for cellphones in schools, said Kolb, who said the pendulum would likely swing away from bans depending on how attitudes about technology in schools change.

“It’s really about making sure that we educate students and parents about healthy habits with their digital devices,” she said.

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Brooke Schultz is a member of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms to report on underreported issues.

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Associated Press writer Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo, New York, contributed to this report.