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Ban Or Understand? Policies That Respect Emerging Adults

Imagine you just got a promotion at a company where you’ve worked for 11 years. You’ve been a loyal employee ever since your first day with the company when you were young, inexperienced, and still learning. In the time you’ve been with the company, you’ve grown considerably. You’ve made friends, acquired knowledge, demonstrated competency, and shown respect for authority. In sum, you are a model employee.

A few weeks before you begin your new position, you get an email from your company’s leadership team. This is what the email says: “Due to the impact on employee engagement, the company has decided to ban the use of cell phones and ear buds in the work setting, effective immediately.”

As a capable, loyal employee, how does this make you feel? What questions do you have? To what extent is this ban an indictment of your reputation with the company? What is your physical reaction?

Swap company for school and employee for student, and you suddenly realize what high school seniors across the country—including my area—are facing as a result of cell phone bans this school year. This year’s 12th graders started kindergarten the year I got my first Smartphone. They grew up with iPads and Chromebooks and were part of the first Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) initiatives of the previous decade. They had only six months of high school before the world shut down and they had to learn virtually during the ensuing months of their high school careers. Some took music lessons virtually, used apps to learn languages, and learned from educators who were teaching in person and virtually at the same time. Their fragile freshman relationship with teachers and friends hung by a thread during the pandemic. The thread was their cell phone.

I have mixed feelings about student and adult use of cell phones in school settings. In some cases, students excel at balancing the use of productivity apps, social engagement, and creativity on their phones at all times of the day. I’m not naïve enough to think they are not getting distracted, or even bullying or getting into trouble by using those same devices. But in one short year our high school seniors will enter the world of work, college, or the military, and those same problems will not disappear because they are no longer under the purview of the school system. These students will be old enough to vote. Some will be serving their country and they are not allowed to have their phone out during English class?

Information about the proposed policy is still emerging, but the snippet from page 4 of the Virginia Beach School Board August 9 meeting agenda below sends a clear message to students: Do as we say, not as we do. We don’t trust you.

In general, I am not opposed to bans. I believe we should ban possession of firearms in school, for example, and I have zero tolerance for racism, sexism, classism, or any actions that make learning unsafe for students. Even these bans, however obvious, should be coupled with explanations that help students understand the bans and how they align with school policy and core values. It does not take a valedictorian to point out how inconsistent the cell phone ban is with other elements of school policy, culture, and values. This is an unacceptable misstep.

It’s not my way to criticize without identifying other possibilities to solve the problem. Here is one idea:

The word “consulted” in the background summary of the recommendation above is a passive term. It implies asking, but not necessarily following the advice given. It also implies that a select number of people from a select number of groups were asked. Who were these individuals and which stakeholder groups did they represent?

After watching a recording of the recent board workshop on August 9—which largely focused on discipline and seemed to indicate there was a consensus on this issue (the recommendation was followed by applause from the board, along with quite a bit of laughter at the expense of students)—I could not help but wonder how or when were students consulted? Do students define engagement the same way that adults do? One of the last statements from the board was about “parents helping us” with this. I have questions about the board’s attitude and approach to this issue.

Rather than consulted, I’d like to see these stakeholder groups engaged in the problem-solving process. A forum of voluntary stakeholders (not handpicked) could come to a design thinking challenge where the problem is simply presented as it was in the recommendation: Cell phones impact student engagement. (Note: this statement says “impact,” not negative impact. I’m sure students and their teachers could provide many instances when cell phones positively impacted student engagement.)

Stakeholders could gather in groups and respond to the recommendation in the form of “How Might We…” (HMW) statements such as:

  • HMW reduce distractions from students texting during class discussions?

  • HMW allow respectful use of devices during class downtime?

  • HMW require adults to follow the same guidelines expected of students?

  • HMW find ways for students to communicate with their parents, other family members, employers, coaches, etc. if cell phones are banned? (In my day, we kept a quarter in our pocket and used the pay phone, which schools do not have anymore, you know, because CELL PHONES!)

This list could go on and on. A more comprehensive and inclusive policy would surely arise from a process like this one. Better than that, various stakeholders would feel included in the decision-making process. As it stands, the current approach makes many stakeholders feel excluded or worse – disrespected.

High schoolers are emerging adults. Even though they have boneheaded moments (didn’t we all?), sometimes we forget about high schoolers’ capacity for empathy, their passion, their creativity, their resilience and, perhaps most relevant in this instance, their low tolerance for hypocrisy.

Until we are willing to ban cell phones for ALL individuals who enter a school, we are not banning to understand. We are not teaching anyone how to manage use of devices. We are not preparing students for the world. We are not showing respect, humility, or understanding. We are showing that students are no better than the only other people I can think of who are under the purview of a government system and banned from using cell phones – prisoners.

1 Comment

Meghan Raftery
Meghan Raftery
Jan 05, 2023

This article from Edutopia gives some great suggestions about how to work WITH cell phones in the classroom...


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