Classroom Technology

States Have Tried to Ban Cellphones in Schools. It Hasn’t Gone Well.

By Alyson Klein — September 10, 2019 2 min read
Female student making homework tasks while using smartphone.
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France banned cellphones in schools for students 15 and under. Ontario, a Canadian province, is also restricting their use in class.

But four U.S. states—Arizona, Maine, Maryland, and Utah all tried last year to enact some level of cellphone ban or at least explore cellphone restrictions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And in every case, the legislation failed to make it to prime time.

Arizona, for instance, tried to call for a public policy that would have said portable electronic devices can’t be used in class unless “authorized by the individual having authority over the public school system.”

Not all the bills would have banned cellphones outright. Maryland called for a task force to study the impact of cellphones in classrooms on student learning and teacher instruction. That too, didn’t make it across the finish line. Similarly, a bill in Utah would have required schools to come up with a policy for using cellphones in classrooms. But it wasn’t enacted.

And a committee in Maine passed legislation requiring the state department of education to adopt rules restricting cellphones in class. It allowed students to use their phones in the front office in the event of an emergency. The bill made it out of committee, but was never enacted, the Republican lawmaker who sponsored the measure.

The idea was inspired in part by conversations with school officials and administrators who told Sampson that in, “90 percent of their conflict resolution the key component was a cellphone.” Students were, “taking inappropriate, pictures, cheating, running drugs, cyber bullying.” But she said that principals and superintendents didn’t hard for the bill, “It was very interesting how many superintendents agreed with the idea but were afraid to take the bold stance,” Sampson said.

While a lot of parents were supportive of the ban, others wanted to know how the school would handle an emergency, such as a school shooting, Sampson said. That’s something school districts around the country consider when mulling cellphone bans. Her take? Parents can call the school’s front office, just like they did back in the pre-digital era.

The bill ultimately, “went down in flames” on the House floor, Sampson said. Her colleagues told her, “The horse had already left the barn” as far as cellphones in schools.

There was, however, one state that was able to pass legislation dealing with cellphones in schools: California. The state’s bill doesn’t place any mandates on schools or districts, though. Instead, it simply allows districts to adopt policies restricting or prohibiting smart phone use during school hours, with exceptions for emergencies and the use of phones for educational purposes. Exemptions can be made for emergencies, to accommodate medial needs, or if use of a cell phone is part of an Individualized Education Program for a student in special education.

The idea of the bill wasn’t to force schools to get rid of cellphones but to raise, “awareness of the growing evidence that shows excessive smartphone use at school interferes with education, encourages cyberbullying, and may have adverse effects on teenage mental health, including increased rates of depression and suicide,” wrote its sponsor Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, in an email.

But experts, including those at Common Sense Media, a non-profit that focuses on children, technology, and media, aren’t so sure it makes sense to ban cellphones. Instead, schools should focus on teaching students to use the devices responsibly. More in this story.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.