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Should high schools ban cell phones like San Mateo did five years ago?



… should more schools do this?


Something occurred in 1999 that forced parents to start buying cell phones for their children. It was inadvertent and involved one of the most horrific school shootings in history, but Columbine High School students in Colorado — in an affluent suburban area of Denver — were able to communicate with their parents and assure them that they were safe during that deadly siege.


Little did they know that this disaster would be a huge boon for the cellular industry while also having severe negative effects on young people’s communication skills.


So, this is the story of San Mateo High School and how it is trying to change society.


Yondr?


What in the world is “Yondr”? I had heard the word previously, but was not familiar with how it is changing school districts across the country.


However, the schools that are using this practice believe that the change has been very positive for students.


The action has been part of a movement to transform schools into “cellphone-free spaces.”


In 2019 San Mateo made a massive change, implementing a policy that made it against the rules for students to use phones during the school day.


They enforce the policy with a tool called Yondr, a locking pouch in which students place their phones upon arrival on campus; they are only able to reopen them again once the school day is over. Every day starts with kids placing their phones inside a Yondr pouch, which locks upon closure and can only be opened with a special Yonder unlocking base. The pouches go on desks, and as teachers circle the room collecting homework, they make sure all students have successfully “Yondred” as well.


Elena Sheppard, This school banned cellphones 4 years ago.

Here's how it's going,” Yahoo Life, December 14, 2023

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This was a sea change for the school, but the leaders believe that it has been successful.


“Students are actually talking to one another,” shares Yvonne Shiu, who has been San Mateo’s principal for 17 years. “We've had other people on our campus notice, like, ‘Oh my gosh, you can actually see students’ faces and eyes as they’re walking in the hallways and not looking down at their phones.’”


Shiu remembers clearly what a typical scene on campus looked like before the phone ban was put into place. “Students would sit in circles gathered with friends and they’d all be on their phones texting one another,"


Elena Sheppard, Yahoo Life, December 14, 2023


Growth in 2023


While the practice is controversial in some quarters, the use of this is growing,


San Mateo’s change is part of a larger movement to make schools cellphone-free spaces. Schools and districts from Missouri to Pennsylvania to Florida are making the change, with some extending the ban to smartwatches.


In the 2023 school year, public schools in Montgomery, Ala., began implementing a cellphone ban. At Brewbaker Tech Magnet High School, assistant principal Robert Price says he’s already noticed some positive changes among the student body. “We’re seeing a lot more interpersonal interaction between the kids,” he notes. “I think that’s one of the things we’re happiest about, seeing them interact as kids.”


In addition to it leading to more socializing among students, Price says, teachers are happier to have one less distraction to compete with in classrooms. “A phone is a huge distraction,” he tells Yahoo Life. “If a child wants to sit there and watch a video, it’s going to affect their brains, it’s going to affect the instruction, it’s going to create a discipline issue.


“We’re just glad we’re not having to address those things the way we have in the past.”


Elena Sheppard, Yahoo Life, December 14, 2023


The controversial part of this


While the movement is gaining traction nationwide, some professionals are not convinced that the move is positive,


All that said, the policy of banning phones remains somewhat controversial. Meryl Alper is an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northeastern University whose work focuses on social and emotional implications of communication technology. She's of the mindset that cellphone bans have not been proven to be a total positive.


Alper notes that not having access to one’s phone is a policy harshest on students who may need access for work or family responsibilities. “I think about students who may be balancing things like child care or jobs outside of school, and in the U.S. that is more likely to be low-income Black and Latino students. So how might bans disproportionately impact them? Banning the phones in school doesn’t change the structural conditions outside of school,” Alper says.


Alper also believes that banning the phone is not necessarily the cure-all it’s sometimes thought to be. “Is the cellphone — removing it from a classroom, having kids lock them up before school starts and getting them back before the school day ends — is that in itself the most important contributor to what improves grades, what reduces bullying? I don’t think we have the evidence.”


Elena Sheppard, Yahoo Life, December 14, 2023


I am not certain that I buy this argument. If these are low-income students, how are they able to afford phones like this?


However, she does make one valid point,


“There is a real irony, in the U.S. context, between cellphone bans and assault weapon bans. The whole reason that kids might need phones in schools is to alert their parents of a school shooting or lockdown,” Alper says. “If we were really so concerned about children’s well-being in schools and paying attention and not being stressed, wouldn’t we be doing more about the access that young people, and others, have to assault rifles?”


Elena Sheppard, Yahoo Life, December 14, 2023.


The Columbine argument at San Mateo


The resistance that occurred in California with this move by San Mateo was partially a result of what teachers and students saw at Columbine,


At San Mateo, school shootings were the primary reason why parents did not initially support the change. The school’s phone ban was a grassroots effort that began with a few teachers volunteering to pilot the program in their classrooms. Full faculty buy-in came next, followed by convincing parents. “There was some pushback about being able to contact their student if there was an emergency — especially school shootings, and being able to contact their student and know what’s going on,” Shiu shares.


She mentioned the school’s counterargument was that if an emergency like that were to occur, the distraction of the phone could be even more harmful. “We don’t want your students distracted trying to answer a text that you are sending them when we’re trying to give them instructions on following school safety procedures.”


Elena Sheppard, Yahoo Life, December 14, 2023


The reality is that students having cell phones in school can be positive in a few ways, but I think that doing what many are today and creating cell-phone free areas is positive from an educational point of view. It is also positive from a communications perspective.

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