Families & the Community

District Leaders Are Walking a Fine Line on Cellphone Policies. What That Looks Like

In the Face of Parent Pushback, Superintendents Look for Compromise
By Elizabeth Heubeck — September 25, 2023 5 min read
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Kids used to head out the door in the morning for school and return later in the day, rarely communicating with their parents during the stretch in between. That’s no longer the norm.

Today, nearly half of U.S. kids have a cellphone by age 10. By 14, that percentage increases to 91 percent, according to the nonprofit Common Sense Media. And while it’s impossible to know precisely how many of these cellphone-wielding children hear from or reach out to their parents during the school day, anecdotal evidence suggests that such communication is fairly common, and often driven by parents.

“It’s become more and more unmanageable. Especially now, I think parents want to be in contact with their kids 24/7. At least it seems that way,” said Brooke Olsen-Farrell, superintendent for Fair Haven, Vt.’s Slate Valley Unified Union school district.

A desire for constant contact with their children is a key reason behind parent pushback to the district’s new and stricter cellphone policy for 2023-24, which bans cellphone use anywhere on school grounds while classes are in session and advises students to request permission to go to the main office to use an office phone if they need to place an emergency phone call. During the school day, students are expected to keep cellphones in their lockers.

While the new policy resulted in backlash from some parents, Olsen-Farrell acknowledged that other parents did express their support. But, as is often the case with any new policy or procedure, critics are often the most vocal.

Such was the case in Providence, R.I., after a recent ban on cellphones in schools took effect. Some parents were supportive, according to Karen Bachus, the chairwoman of the district’s school board. Others, not so much. “[They] have said, ‘You can tell us what to do when you pay our phone bill,’” Bachus said.

Amid such potentially contentious environments, district leaders are tasked with managing cellphone policies that aim to keep distractions at bay during school while also appealing to parents’ concerns. While there’s no single or simple solution to the cellphone conundrum, some district leaders shared the nuanced approaches that they say make their policies more effective and manageable.

Storing cellphones during class, not banning them

In past years, the Gorham School District in Maine subscribed to a “teacher’s choice” cellphone policy. But this school year, phone hotels—clear, plastic compartments that hang on classroom walls and hold students’ phones—greet students in each classroom.

“We were looking for a way to make an impact [on cellphone use], but still give students some autonomy,” said Gorham Superintendent Heather J. Perry. “We knew not, nor would we ever try, to ban phones from the campus. It would be impossible to do and to enforce.”

Instead, students are expected to place their phones in the holders at the beginning of class, and retrieve them as they leave the classroom. Students are still allowed to use their phones between classes. Perry described the response to the new policy by parents as “overwhelmingly positive.”

Perhaps more surprising to Perry was student feedback. “They’re saying ‘Thank you,’” Perry said. “They acknowledge they were distracted. This forces them to have more positive social interactions and participate more fully in class.”

Applying ‘unified’ messaging around a cellphone policy

The cellphone policy at Lake Forest High School, the single school in Illinois’ Lake Forest Community High School District 115, has been in place for several years. It’s fairly standard, requiring that all electronic devices be powered off or silenced and out of sight during the regular school day, with some exceptions.

Those exceptions include: a supervising teacher grants permission to use a phone; a student’s individualized education program, or IEP, allows them to use a phone; students can use their phones during lunch; and students can use their phones if an emergency is threatening the safety of students, staff, or others.

What’s new is how the school is carrying out the policy.

All teachers receive the same language about cellphone use during class, and they are encouraged to incorporate it into their respective syllabi. The one-page document, titled “Classroom Procedures for Use of Cell Phones and Other Connected Devices,” reviews related school policies and procedures as well as a series of consequences dependent on the number of times a student has used their phone or device without permission.

While it’s not mandatory that teachers insert the document into their course syllabi, most have chosen to do so, according to Matthew Montgomery, superintendent of Lake Forest Community High School District 115. Having parents read the same guidelines distributed by multiple teachers, in concert with similar messages coming from administrators, reinforces this unified approach, said Montgomery.

Associate Principal Patrick Sassen agrees that the added layers of support are working with near uniform enforcement by staff and caddies in each classroom where students can place their phones during class time. The school has recorded only five cellphone policy violations since the start of the school year, he wrote in an email.

“The clear, proactive communication and the structures in the classroom that support these procedures have had a significant impact,” he said.

Montgomery believes the key lies in how the policy is executed.

“We’re showing a very unified front about how we’re supporting cellphone usage. It wasn’t top down,” he said. “As I’m going to meetings throughout the district, I’m hearing from parents, ‘Thank you for the cellphone guidelines.’”

‘Unfettered access during the school day just breeds problems’

Olsen-Farrell, the superintendent in Vermont, recognizes that many parents believe that their children are safer when they have access to cellphones.

“We are really trying to help parents reframe their thinking about why we have this rule in place, and what they can do to get in touch with their child,” Olsen-Farrell said. She invites parents who need to contact their children to call the office and have the front desk staff relay a message to the student. “It’s what we used to do 15 years ago,” she said.

Olsen-Farrell acknowledges that many of today’s parents also grew up with cellphones and the instant connection they afforded. “They don’t remember the time when we went to the pay phone to call our parents for a ride,” she said.

While today’s ubiquitous access to cellphones during the school day may allow for convenient and instant connection between kids and their parents, school officials see it as a major disruption.

“Unfettered access during the school day just breeds problems,” Olsen-Farrell said.

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