School Climate & Safety

Why These Parents Want Cellphones Banned in Schools

By Elizabeth Heubeck — November 02, 2023 3 min read
Students' cell phones are collected by school administration before the start of spring break at California City Middle School in California City, Calif., on March 11, 2022.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The arguments against student cellphone use at school are explicit, serious, and incontrovertible: They’re a classroom distraction, an ongoing disruption to users and those nearby, and a conduit for online bullying.

So severe is the perceived risk they pose to students’ learning and mental health, that widespread bans on cellphones in schools are taking effect around the globe, with England being the latest to urge a complete ban of the devices by students on school campuses.

Until recently, such a sweeping cellphone ban in U.S. schools would have been unthinkable—and not just because decisions related to the nation’s school systems generally happen at the state and local levels. School officials blame strong opposition to schoolwide cellphone bans primarily on one powerful group of stakeholders: parents.

But that’s changing.

A committed group of parents are at the forefront of the latest salvo for cellphone-free schools, leading a campaign to ban the devices on K-12 campuses.
Highlighting these efforts is a “call to action” letter sent on Oct. 23 to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, urging him to issue an advisory regarding student cellphone use in K-12 schools. More than 60 advocates—including experts in the fields of psychology, early-childhood development, education, and technology—signed the letter. Six of its authors were parents, including Kim Whitman, a Kansas-based parent of two teenagers and co-founder of the Phone Free Schools Movement.

“We want to encourage a cultural change in our schools so students can be free from the distractions, pressures, and harms that access to phones/social media creates,” said Whitman. “We are parents that want to empower other parents.”

Convincing parents that cellphones don’t keep kids safe at school

At least initially, it might not be easy to convince all parents that a cellphone ban at their children’s schools is “empowering,” according to school officials who have implemented such policies. School shootings, and the subsequent fear they engender in parents, are far more common in the United States than in the United Kingdom, which has had a total of three in its entire history.

Jose Lebron, the principal at Kensington High School in the Philadelphia school district, is in his eighth year at the school. Soon after he started the job, he put a cellphone ban in place. Parents reacted strongly.

“Shortly after we sent out communication to students and parents [about the ban]—that’s when the uproar began. We were getting inundated with phone calls. Parents were going to their city council; complaints got all the way up to the superintendent’s office,” he said, “You would have thought the world was going to end.”

But he didn’t budge. “In my years as a principal in Philadelphia, I’ve tried every policy. The only approach that works is to keep phones out of the building, period,” Lebron said.

Safety concerns are chief among parents’ complaints, according to Lebron. “They say, ‘If something happens, my child needs to get in contact with me,’” he said.

In fact, violent incidents at the school have decreased since Lebron instituted the ban. “Serious incidents [of physical violence] have almost disappeared,” said Lebron, who noted that the only student-initiated fight this year occurred after school hours, blocks from campus, and that student suspensions due to physical confrontations are negligible.

That stands in stark contrast to when Lebron began his job as principal and hadn’t yet instituted the ban. That first year, a student used his cellphone while at school to communicate with an acquaintance outside the school about an ongoing student conflict. In response, the acquaintance delivered a gun to the school that was intended to “settle” the conflict. The young man was intercepted by school staff and no one was harmed, but the incident further convinced Lebron to institute a schoolwide cellphone ban.

Shifting cultural norms

By now, the school culture around cellphone use has shifted, according to Lebron. “It’s gotten to the point where it’s accepted,” he said, referring to the total cellphone ban on campus.

Whitman and other parents who support total cellphone bans at schools are hopeful that this cultural shift is expanding.

“Even in the last few years, I feel parents are so much more aware of the negative impact of cellphones and social media,” said Victoria Dunckley, a child psychiatrist who signed the letter to Cardona.

“We’re just getting started,” said Whitman, who has received a response from the Department of Education suggesting a meeting with the authors of the letter and a member of the department’s senior policy advisory team.

Related Tags:

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Opinion How Do Restorative Practices Work?
Traditional punitive measures tend to reap more misbehavior.
13 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
School Climate & Safety What Helped These K-12 Leaders After School Shootings
School shootings leave deep and lasting impact on the community, including those charged with leading students and staff in the aftermath.
5 min read
School staff cheer as students returned to in-person classes at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, following a shooting on Oct. 24, 2022, that killed a student and a teacher. Kacy Shahid, then the school's principal, faced the challenge of guiding the school community through recovery as she struggled herself to process the events.
School staff cheer as students returned to in-person classes at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School in St. Louis on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, following a shooting on Oct. 24, 2022, that killed a student and a teacher. Kacy Shahid, then the school's principal, faced the challenge of guiding the school community through recovery as she struggled herself to process the events.
Jim Salter/AP
School Climate & Safety Another State Will Let Teachers Carry Guns. What We Know About the Strategy
Tennessee lawmakers passed a bill allowing teachers to carry guns with administrators' permission a year after the Covenant School shooting.
5 min read
People protest outside the House chamber after legislation passed that would allow some teachers to be armed in schools during a legislative session on April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn.
People protest outside the House chamber after legislation passed that would allow some teachers to be armed in schools during a legislative session on April 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee could join more than 30 other states in allowing certain teachers to carry guns on campus. There's virtually no research on the strategy's effectiveness, and it remains uncommon despite the proliferation of state laws allowing it.
George Walker IV/AP
School Climate & Safety Video WATCH: Columbine Author on Myths, Lessons, and Warning Signs of Violence
David Cullen discusses how educators still grapple with painful lessons from the 1999 shooting.
1 min read