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Pa. Bill Would Launch Pilot to Manage Phones in Schools

Proposed legislation approved in the Pennsylvania State Senate would give school districts money for lockable pouches to store student phones if those districts ban cell phone use during the school day.

students cell phones
(TNS) — Some Pennsylvania districts could ban cell phone use during the school day if a bill passed recently by the State Senate is approved by the House.

Although the bill does not institute a statewide ban, it would launch a pilot program allowing schools to purchase secure, lockable bags with state money, and requiring participating districts to ban cell phone use during the school day.

The aim, sponsor Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster) said in a legislative memo, is "to address a root cause of the mental health and academic decline experienced by Pennsylvania students."

The legislation was approved with bipartisan support by the Senate on July 3, and now awaits passage in the House, where lawmakers are in the throes of budget negotiations.

In Pennsylvania and across the nation, there's been a rise in mental health needs among young people. The state spent $100 million last year in new funds to tackle student mental health issues.

Aument said he wanted to zero in on "one of the root causes of our children's mental distress: widespread access to smartphones and social media apps," he wrote in the proposed legislation. "By now, we all have likely seen some alarming statistics showing the steep decline in mental health in children since the early 2010s: Rates of depression among teens increased about 150 percent. Suicide rate for kids ages 10-14 tripled between 2007 and 2021. Suicide rate for girls ages 10-14 rose 131 percent."

Behavioral issues have also spiked. Earlier this year, a number of middle school students in the Great Valley School District in Chester County created bogus TikTok accounts impersonating teachers, some of which contained racist, homophobic and sexually inappropriate material.

"The data correlation between the mental health decline, social decline, and academic decline of children and the rise of smartphones cannot be denied," Aument said. "Many parents and teachers alike see the devastating impact these devices are having on children and are asking for help."


Cell phone bans have been on the rise in schools, with research showing that taking phones out of classrooms can boost student academic outcomes.

In one tech-forward Philadelphia school, ninth-grade teachers banned cell phones near the end of the 2023-24 school year to great success — the quality of student work improved, one Science Leadership Academy teacher said, but relationships and student interactions also benefitted significantly.

Chris Lehmann, SLA principal, has said the school is working "toward not having cell phones in class, period."

A number of other Philadelphia schools have already moved to purchase Yondr pouches, one type of bag that locks cell phones, with mixed success.

Aument's bill calls for districts that use state money to buy the lockable bags to monitor how the cell phone bill affects student mental health and academic performance. The grants would be administered through the state's Commission on Crime and Delinquency; it's not yet clear how much money might be available to fund the grants, or how many or which districts might participate.

Officially, the Philadelphia School District has said "phone-free environments in schools during instructional time" are key to academic achievement, but officials have given latitude to individual schools to determine how they want to achieve that, and many schools still allow students to have phones during class.


Author Jonathan Haidt argues in the book The Anxious Generation that a "phone-based childhood" has replaced a "play-based childhood" for many children, leading to mental health and other issues. Haidt has called for phone-free schools.

Aument, the father of a 13-year-old and an 11-year-old, said the idea came after he met Haidt at an event. Haidt peppered Aument with questions about his kids' smartphone use, and the rules they have about social media. (The Aument kids don't have phones; Aument's son is asking for one, and sometimes gets to use Aument's tablet.)

After listening to Haidt speak, Aument and his staff put together the bill and began looking for co-sponsors. A number signed on, and he also began getting outreach from parents and educators.

"In the 14 years that I've been here, I've not had an issue that's resonated so quickly," Aument said. "Classroom teachers were telling me, you have no idea what an issue this is."

Aument initially thought about a statewide ban on cell phones in schools, but has refined the legislation to preserve local decision-making; districts would have to opt into the program.

The legislation would grant exemptions to the cell phone ban for students who have proof of a medical condition, such as diabetes, that requires them to have a cell phone at all times.

As for the bill's chances of becoming law, Aument said that given the 45-5 vote by which it passed the Senate — rare for an education bill, he said — he thinks "it is very well positioned to pass. I think it is very well positioned to be considered as part of the school code."

©2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.