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Traverse City Schools Get 'Nothing but Positive' Feedback on Phone Policy

An "away-for-the-day" policy, which required sixth-grade students to have their cellphones turned off and out of sight for the entirety of the school day, led to "less drama, less bullying and less harassment."

Overhead shot of hands around a table holding cellphones
More than three-quarters of U.S. K-12 public schools prohibit non-academic cellphone use, according to a report from the 2021-2022 school year.
Mirko Vitali/Dreamstime/TNS
(TNS) — A year after implementing new school cellphone policies, Traverse City Area Public Schools administrators' praises were ringing.

At the TCAPS Board of Education meeting Monday night, leaders from the district's middle schools and high schools presented feedback provided by their staff and teachers, regarding cell phone policies.

Last year, an "away-for-the-day" policy was voted into place by the BOE to minimize phone usage with sixth-eighth grade students. The policy generally means students' cellphones have to be turned off and out of sight for the entirety of the school day.

Kristen Stuedemann, principal of Traverse City West Middle School, stated that the feedback from her staff and teachers was "nothing but positive."

"I agree," said Dan Tiesworth, East Middle School principal, "We thought there would be an influx early on of pushback from students ... but we didn't see any of that."

Tiesworth said that there was initial concern from teachers, regarding patrolling policy, but that was not a concern by the end of the year.

"I wasn't sure how it was going to be received, but our students, teachers and staff all stepped up," said Stuedemann.

Both principals noted a more "positive climate" in their schools.

"There was less drama, less bullying, and less harassment," said Tiesworth, "Less having to chase down kids for screenshots."

"School threats decreased," he said, "Just a super positive experience."

When the "away-for-the-day" policy was voted upon by the Board of Education, there was mixed feelings between trustees. The general feeling from board members Monday night was "surprised."

"I'm shocked at how positive the feedback is," said Scott Newman-Bale, TCAPS board president.

Jessie Houghton, Traverse City Central High School principal, and Andy Wares Traverse City West Senior High School assistant principal, also shared cellphone policy feedback from staff and teachers.

Though the "away-for-the-day" policy did not apply to the high schools, each campus experimented with other policies for minimizing phone usage.

For instance, students were expected to check in and place cellphones in sleeves or pockets placed in each classroom.

Wares noted that the routine of "checking phones into pockets" already takes away minutes from each class hour, and was a concern for staff. "And then the process of getting them back at the end of the hour ... it takes away instructional time from the teachers."

Houghton said that at the high school level there were considerably more variables to consider that come with high school students versus middle school students, therefore more of a practical need for phone usage and communication between students and parents.

"When you have 200 kids that go back-and-forth to the [Career] Tech Center, 500 that drive to school, and kids that go to work after school, it's more complex. It'd be a tough battle if we completely removed phones," Houghton said.

Both leaders also reported improvement with student engagement in their schools.

"I think that it is working, but I think there's still work to do," said Wares, "But I can count on my hands how many times I actually walked into a classroom and observed a student on their phone."

Both Houghton and Wares reported buy-in from staff and teachers.

"It's hard to sell something if you don't believe in it yourself," said Wares.

"My classrooms are totally different," said Houghton.

The Board of Education and school leaders noted that tracking of school policies would continue, but no immediate changes were made.

BOE Trustee Beth Pack credited the school leadership.

"This data speaks volumes of how well you all executed and implemented [this policy]."

It was parents and community members who brought the issue forward to the board in the first place.

In late May 2023, parents started to push for a change to the district's cellphone policy by bringing their concerns to that month's board of education office hours, according to past reporting, and about a dozen community members — parents, teachers, and one fifth grade student — appeared at the following month's board meeting to speak on the issue.

Concerns largely stemmed from an advisory from U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy's office, which stated that it can't be concluded that social media is safe for children and adolescents. Proponents of a policy change have cited the growing reports of isolation and loneliness in the past decade, coinciding with the rise in cellphone use.

Later that summer, community members cited statistics similar to those published by Pew research, which shows that about 45 percent of teenagers report being online "on a near constant basis," if no restrictions are put in place.

©2024 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.