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Bay Area Schools Divided on Smartphone Ban Proposal

Many Bay Area school districts already restrict cellphone use in schools but allow students to use their phones during non-instructional time. Students and staff have mixed opinions on the idea of a statewide policy.

Bay Area student phones
Teenagers look at their phones at Santana Row in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, July 2, 2024.
Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group/TNS
(TNS) — While cellphones are already restricted in many California classrooms, Gov. Gavin Newsom has called for stricter policies through a statewide limitation or ban on the popular devices. But many Bay Area schools remain split on the proposal.

Newsom previously approved legislation in 2019 authorizing school districts to limit or prohibit students’ use of cellphones at school. Recently, he said he plans to build on that law — AB 272 — to further restrict students’ cellphone use at school, but did not offer specific plans. His office declined to elaborate.

“I look forward to working with the legislature to restrict the use of smartphones during the school day,” Newsom said in a statement. “When children and teens are in school, they should be focused on their studies – not their screens.”

The announcement came after the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called on Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms to advise that social media use can harm teenagers’ mental health.

Researchers remain divided on whether digital media can be blamed for worsening mental health among children and teens. Some have argued there is little evidence to support the link between digital technology use and adolescent mental health. But others have said smartphones are causing an “epidemic of mental illness.”

Many Bay Area districts already restrict or prohibit student cellphone use in schools, often allowing students to use their phones between classes or during non-instructional time.

“Cellphones are part of our culture and for many students and families, a necessary vessel of communication around transportation, extracurricular activities, childcare and the monitoring of students’ medical conditions,” said a spokesperson for Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, Michelle Dawson. “Our focus is on educating students on how to use their cellphones respectfully, responsibly and within the boundaries of our established policy.”

Fremont Unified School District’s former superintendent, CJ Cammack, said while the district allows “appropriate” use of cell phones, elementary students are required to keep their devices off during school hours. Cammack added that middle and high school teachers are allowed to limit or ban use of cell phones in their individual classrooms.

As executive director of the consumer advocacy group California for Safe Technology, Cheryl Matthews advocates for restrictions and bans on students’ cellphone and social media use. She said while there are some positives to social media, it’s too much of a distraction for students and has gotten “out of control.”

“Banning phones … improves academic performance, encourages more face-to-face interaction (and) decreases cyberbullying,” Matthews said. “It promotes healthier habits and ensures academic integrity because kids can’t cheat on assignments.”

Some districts have already outright banned phones during the school day. Just last month, the Los Angeles Unified School District — the largest in the state — made headlines when its school board voted to ban students’ use of phones beginning in 2025.

San Mateo Union High School District banned school cellphone use in 2019 after teachers expressed concern over their students’ social media habits and addictions, said Adam Gelb, the former assistant principal of San Mateo High School.

The district partnered with technology company, Yondr, to provide magnetic pouches for students to lock their phones in during the school day. Once locked, students have to tap the pouch on an unlocking base in order to access their phone.

Gelb said the high school allowed students to keep their pouches in their backpacks or on their desks, but teachers would occasionally unlock the pouches to check that students’ phones were securely locked away.

“The phones were pretty much in the pouches from 8:30 to 3:15 for all students (and) all grades for the entire day,” Gelb said.

But tighter phone restrictions have led some parents and students to question school safety.

Gelb said San Mateo High added the pouches into existing safety drills so students and teachers were prepared to unlock phones in an emergency.

But Zoe Touray, a member of the gun control advocacy group March for Our Lives, said it was her phone that saved her life on the day a 15-year-old boy shot and killed four students at a Michigan high school three years ago.

Touray said she and other students at Oxford High School thought the November 2021 shooting was just another lockdown drill until they saw students running from the building on social media and understood the danger they were in.

“I think that might be the one big drawback that the governor is proposing, just because my phone was the most important thing in my life that day. And it is to this day,” Touray said. “Even now … I can look for an exit but my first thought will be, ‘where’s my phone?’ so I can contact my mom or the police if I need to. My phone is always my No. 1 option.”

Sara Herrera, a parent of a student at Valley Christian Schools in San Jose, said she felt nervous about the idea of stricter restrictions if her daughter wouldn’t be able to contact her during the day.

“I need to be able to have that access to her in some ways,” Herrera said.

The California School Boards Association said while it encourages school districts to consider the potential dangers posed by phone and social media use on campus, district leaders should be in charge of deciding whether to implement restrictions.

“Given the substantial demographic, topographic and ideological differences between California’s 940 school districts and 58 county offices of education, rather than ceding the matter to legislators in Sacramento, we should address this issue at a local level,” said Troy Flint, the chief communications officer for the association.

Palo Alto Unified School District’s superintendent, Don Austin, agreed that decisions regarding student phone use should remain with locally elected school boards and pointed out it doesn’t make sense for schools to restrict or ban phones in districts that provide students with computers and wifi access.

“I do believe that addictive social media applications are harmful to students. There are many ways to attack that problem beyond bans or restrictions on cellular devices,” Austin said. “If social media is the enemy, perhaps the restrictions should be tailored to address the social media outlets.”

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