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How one district banned cell phones — and how everyone is adjusting

Students have mixed reactions but can see the benefits

At the beginning of this school year, Forest Hills Public Schools instituted a ban on cell phone use during the school day. Not in classrooms, even as a classroom tool. Not between classes. Not even at lunchtime. And that goes for teachers and students.

SNN talked to district administrators, parents, teachers and students to find out how the ban is working. Though some students still have mixed feelings, it appears to be effective so far in minimizing distractions, improving face-to-face interactions and taking the pressure off students to always be camera and social-media ready.

With help from at least one student organization, Forest Hills is working this year to collect data on how the ban might affect test scores and student grades. The teacher-adviser of that group said they could make their findings available to other districts.

Other districts have varying policies, but essentially — as student handbooks indicate — cell phones have become an issue for many.

Related Story: Most districts allow phones, but with restrictionsAn informal School News Network survey of public school districts in Kent County besides Forest Hills showed cell-phone use is generally not permitted in elementary schools, and only allowed under strictly defined conditions in middle and high schools…

“There are varying views and perspectives on the cell phone use issue – and all are valid,” said Ron Caniff, superintendent of Kent ISD. “Some schools use smart phones in classrooms as a teaching tool, while others see it as a distraction to learning. This is one of those issues where there is no single right answer.”

The Backstory

At the end of the 2018-19 school year, FHPS announced that as of 2019-20, cell phones would not be permitted during the school day in any K-12 buildings.

Revised student handbooks read, in part:

… Reviewing research on the use of cell phones by school-aged children has allowed us to reflect on how to best support our students as they learn and grow. It has become clear that excessive exposure to cell phones has a negative effect on school-aged children. In view of the research findings, we have reflected on how we can modify district practices to support all students. … Students will not be allowed to carry or use cell phones during the school day. Phones are available in the office of each school should a student need to contact their parent. Consequences of violation include escalating confiscation, social probation that includes missed school functions and athletic events, and suspension. 

The new policy was piloted last year at Northern Hills Middle School, with exceptions for those with medical needs such as insulin monitoring and reporting. When feedback was positive after several months from students, teachers and parents, a working group was formed to explore taking it district-wide.

“In both cases, it was a matter of ‘How am I going to readjust my routines?’” Superintendent Dan Behm said. “What it comes down to is people certainly see the benefit of being cell phone-free for several hours a day, and willing to be creative in workarounds as far as mitigating the loss of some of the conveniences.”

Between the pilot and the district-wide policy begun this year, Behm said, “I’ve taken less than five phone calls and emails from parents who were either upset or thought it was the wrong move.”

Behm said the district plans in January to begin to survey administrators, staff, students and parents to gauge how well the policy is working.

And for those concerned about weather warnings, building lockdowns or emergencies, “students would be able to get to their phones,” Behm said. “We do not prohibit a student from having a phone in their backpack; we just don’t want to see it or hear it at all from the first bell to the last.” 

‘I have noticed a change in like, if you’re taking a test and your phone buzzes, I do get distracted. That’s the one benefit I truly have noticed.’ — Forest Hills Central junior Matthew Mahoney (left)

‘Technology is such a key part of society at this point that I feel like, let it happen and figure out how to control it rather than get rid of it.’ — Forest Hills Central senior Jordan Helmbrecht (center)

‘We’re talking to each other more. It does make you reach out to people, and feel like more of a community.’ — Forest Hills Central junior Lynlee Derrick (right)

Students Speak

They get it, sure. Students say the new policy helps them stay off social media, refrain from selfies and have more face-to-face conversations. But it also requires more precise timing for coordinating rides for little brothers, and returning to old technologies for some class activities.

Under the direction of adviser Ken George, staff members of The Central Trend student news site at Central High School have launched a series on the ban and its effects on students and staff. The series makes clear student reaction is mixed — even from individual students. 

‘There are varying views and perspectives on the cell phone use issue – and all are valid. … This is one of those issues where there is no single right answer.’

— Ron Caniff, Kent ISD superintendent

Staff writer Jordan Helmbrecht, a senior, wrote an editorial earlier this fall: “(T)he answer is not to completely exterminate phones in school but to learn to accept them. Once this occurs, schools can find ways to incorporate phones as well as limit their distraction. A complete ban on phones in schools is simply moving backwards in time, not forwards.”

Jordan said she understands the arguments for the ban, but a few months into the school year stands by what she wrote.

“I feel like people have gotten more used to it, but there have been times that, like for me in biology when I have to take pictures of stuff or quickly look something up, I wish I had it.”

Both Jordan and junior Lynlee Derrick said they still miss the convenience of taking notes on their phones during class or using educational apps such as Kahoot! during the school day, even though both can be done on district devices.

“Technology is such a key part of society at this point that I feel like, let it happen and figure out how to control it rather than get rid of it,” Jordan said.

Pros, Cons and In-betweens  

The district was serious enough that funds were allocated to buy digital cameras and held-held recorders so students wouldn’t need their phones. But Jordan, Lynlee and junior Matthew Mahoney wish there had been an exception for student journalists.

Lynlee, The Trend’s managing assignments editor, said the audio recorders have created “more of a hassle” for staff in getting used to the old technology, and that deadlines have been missed.

Matthew, sports editor in chief, said The Trend’s social media presence is “huge,” and that the no-phone policy has created real problems. Just that morning he had posted about a volleyball game and inadvertently put two different times. As he went to his classes unaware, he said, virtual confusion ensued.

“So much of our influence is on social media. Without me being able to post on and see that throughout the day … time is everything… It’s very frustrating.”

Journalism aside, however, how has the ban actually affected their school day? 

“Honestly, not that much,” Matthew admitted. “Really, I don’t think about my phone during the day. I have noticed a change in like, if you’re taking a test and your phone buzzes, I do get distracted. That’s the one benefit I truly have noticed.”

“I notice it less now,” Jordan said. “I think we’ve just found out that maybe we don’t need them as much as we think we do, and we’ve just evolved to get used to not having them in school.”

Added Lynlee: “We’re talking to each other more. It does make you reach out to people, and feel like more of a community. As much as we would like our phones back … I can see the reasoning and the positives that have come from it.”

‘As soon as phones can be used ‘kind of,’ then there’s just a ton of gray area and it’s hard on everyone. With this rule, there’s no gray area.’

— Forest Hills Central High teacher Ken George

Sophomore Kelsey Dantuma can second that. She said she is grateful there’s no beeping, buzzing or vibrating phones in class. 

“I’d be in class, trying to work, and get a notification on my phone, so I’d check it,” she said. “Then I’d go back to trying to do my work, but I’d maybe need to check a date or something so I’d pick up my phone. … Now there’s no gray area, and I really like it.” 

Another big plus for Kelsey: the social aspect of not having a cell phone to kill time and avoid awkwardness.

Before, she said, “When I didn’t get to bring my phone to school I’d sit at lunch and all my friends would be just scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, and I’d just sit there and eat.” And now? “All my friends actually want to talk.” 

One Teacher’s Take

George, The Central Trend adviser who also teaches language arts and communications, is working with four students to see if they can collect anecdotal and qualitative information about the policy.

“We want to do polling and surveys, and ask students if they have less stress or more because of it, ask teachers whether it’s easier or harder to teach without them, and examine grades, whether student work has improved,” he said. “We’re guessing (Principal Steve) Passinault is going to get approached by other principals at the end of the year to ask ‘So, did it work?’”

As a teacher, George is unequivocal, calling the new policy “the greatest decision ever.”

“What it’s done has taken all the gray area out of (a policy),” he said. “As soon as phones can be used ‘kind of,’ then there’s just a ton of gray area and it’s hard on everyone. With this rule, there’s no gray area. It’s like everyone has just taken a big, deep breath, and they’re in school. They’re just ‘in school.’ I love it.”

One Family’s Experience

Ben Gates, a freshman at Eastern High, said “everyone got kind of worked up” when the new policy was announced. But his mother, Rebecca Gates,  said she thought the new cell phone policy “was really good from the beginning.”

She recalled that her eldest, who graduated from Eastern last year, would come home and tell her how distracting they were in classrooms. Some students used them to tune out substitute teachers, for example, or to take photos or videos without permission from those in them.

“(The previous policy) just gave people the temptation to take them out,” Rebeca Gates said. “Not a good thing.”

And though daughter Maya, a junior, had concerns initially about whether she would be able to reach her parents in an emergency and vice versa, Gates said it hasn’t been an issue so far.

Now that the school year is well under way, Maya said, “for the most part I feel like it’s been pretty positive for the school overall.”

But does not using cell phones during the school day mean less use at home?

Gates laughed. “It doesn’t carry over that much,” she said.

Could it Work Anywhere?

Behm recognizes that a cell phone is a digital Swiss army knife, and that its many features can make it a very useful classroom tool. 

I’ve taken less than five phone calls and emails from parents who were either upset or thought it was the wrong move.’

— Superintendent Dan Behm

Students in science class, for example, might use the stopwatch feature to time an experiment, or to photograph specimens. Behm ballparked what the district spent to purchase actual stopwatches and other devices at about $10,000 across 18 school buildings.

It’s an expense he considers worth it.

“One of the biggest things we are trying to do in K-12 education is to promote and practice deep thinking. We’re trying to build deep thinkers,” he said. “In many ways that requires that we unplug from our devices.”

Behm said he has been contacted by other school districts, and has been asked to speak to educational organizations.

“We’re not saying (to other districts) ‘you should do what we do,’” he stressed. “We think every community needs to make its own decision. But we’re certainly willing to share what we have learned. All in all this has been a much easier transition than most people ever thought it could be.”

CONNECT

Protecting Young Eyes: How one district removed distraction…

FH Eastern High Hawk Herald: A discussion with Superintendent Dan Behm on new cell phone policy

FH Eastern High Hawk Herald Carrier Hawk Parody

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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