“If I could have my way, we’d just ban the things and be done with it.”
So says Warwick School Committee Chairman David Testa, although he admits trying to control student usage …
“If I could have my way, we’d just ban the things and be done with it.”
So says Warwick School Committee Chairman David Testa, although he admits trying to control student usage of the devices is an uphill battle. Constant technological development and increasingly clever student strategies for bypassing the rules have required the district to routinely update their policies on electronic devices since first introducing guidelines in 1996.
Testa has an ally in Julia Steiny, who recently penned an op-ed in the Providence Journal calling for the banning of student cell phones in school (more on Steiny to follow).
The most recent revision in Warwick cell phone policy was issued January 10. Rather than simply banning the use of cell phones during classes, it prohibits students from using phones “before, during, and after school hours while on school grounds or at any school sponsored event.”
Devices must be powered off and remain out of sight, even after the final bell rings.
Of several changes to student policy made at the beginning of the year, the changes to technology were the most significant. Other modifications included minor edits to the dress code, which was rewritten to be more enforceable, and a shift from a target attendance rate of 95% to 90%.
“Since we’ve become a 1:1 school, there’s simply no need for students to use their own technology,” Testa said. “They have school-issued devices that allow them to do homework and engage with material, communicate with teachers and classmates, and remain under supervision while accessing Internet resources. The classroom would be a much less distracting place if we just eliminated personal devices altogether.”
Despite his adamant position, Testa says he would expect substantial pushback from parents and students if the district took the next step of banning possession of mobile devices on campus.
“Parents get upset because they feel like they need to be able to contact their child at any given second,” he explained. “It never used to be like that, of course. When I was a student, there was one phone in the office and the only way parents could convey a message to their child after school had started would be to call the school. That’s still the way it’s supposed to work now, according to district policy.”
Not surprisingly, students have also been a tough sell on the restrictive policy.
“When it comes to the kids, a lot of them seem to think that controlling their access to technology in school is infringing on their rights,” Testa said. “But if they’re using their devices to make TikToks during the school day, they’re just taking time away from material they should have been learning.”
School-issued devices do not allow access to social media sites, making use of a monitoring and filtering service called GoGuardian. This not only prevents distractions in the classroom, but also cuts down on threats to academic integrity and the risk of cyberbullying. “When students are using their own devices, it’s basically the Wild West in terms of the degree of oversight we can provide,” Testa said.
And although every parent’s worst nightmare is being unable to contact their child during an emergency at school, first responders have routinely indicated that the proliferation of cell phones actually make schools less safe during a lockdown situation.
“I’ve been to a number of conferences where police have specifically said that students on phones make their job much harder,” he said. “There’s too much noise, students start attempting to call for help on their own, which ties up 911 lines and distracts them from following teacher instructions, and it can cause parents to panic and start rushing to the location. Overall, your kids are safer without their phones. Julia Steiny recently had an opinion piece in The Providence Journal that made some really great points about the whole subject,” Testa said.
Improving education at no cost
In her article, the former Providence school board member and EdWatch columnist suggested that banning phones from schools would improve education at no cost to taxpayers - a proposal which has garnered a wide variety of responses.
“Since the article came out, I’ve gotten letters from educators and administrators who supported a ban,” Steiny said. “I’ve also gotten a lot of emails from annoyed parents saying that I have no idea what modern schools are like. One of them called me a ‘Luddite.’”
Steiny says that this is only a preview of the pushback that districts can expect if they enact policies to restrict communication devices. Despite this, she believes such an approach would put the United States in line with academically high-performing nations like France, which banned phones in schools in 2018. In her article, she cites studies from numerous sources demonstrating decreased cognitive performance among individuals multitasking by using a phone during academic work. One study by the University of London found that schools which ban phones on campus have 6.41% higher test scores, and nearly 15% higher scores among underperforming students.
“This is something that would have to come down on a district or a state level,” she said. “Individual schools would have trouble coping with parent indignation on that scale. Starting at the top would also take a lot of pressure off of teachers, who are currently shouldering the full responsibility for preventing phone usage.”
According to Steiny, it isn’t just academic performance that would benefit from a ban on phones. In addition to her background in education, Steiny is the former vice president of the RI Mental Health Association; she says that having phones in schools undermines the emotional and social health of students as well.
Phones are a constant distraction
“The teenage brain is wired for social interaction,” she said. “Their number one goal is recruiting, maintaining, and repairing relationships. Having a phone on them is going to be a constant distraction because of that - but it also promotes isolation because their interactions are taking place online and through text rather than in-person. Instead of trying to fit in with the crowd physically around them, they’re trying to fit in with the crowd they’re perceiving online and in social media.”
The dangerous impact which social media can have on adolescent mental health has been widely noted, particularly since the leak of internal studies from Facebook and Instagram in 2020. Having at least one phone-free zone in a teenager’s life can help to reduce risks of social media and video game addiction, Steiny says, as well as problematic behavior like cyber-bullying.
“It’s hard enough for teachers to keep tabs on bullying when it’s occurring within the school building in-person,” she said. “But when it’s happening on social media, educators don’t have the context to figure out what’s going on. It isn’t until you see one student slug the kid next to him that you start learning what kind of interactions they’ve been having online.”
Although likely to be controversial, Steiny believes that restricting phone access gradually might reduce the number of parents with hang-ups about a ban. “We can do it incrementally,” she said. “Maybe start by having a check-in system for phones at the start of the school day. All we need is for one or two local districts to have the courage to try it.”
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