Once an item solely for adults with high-powered jobs or deep pockets, cell phones have become ubiquitous across all of society in the past 20 years. As the average age of acquisition has dropped, schools are grappling with a new world, and local districts have had to develop policies to make sure that cell phones aren’t distracting students from the real purpose of the school day.

At District 90, the elementary and middle schools in River Forest, Tina Steketee, assistant principal at Roosevelt Middle School, says the cell phone policy is crystal clear: students can have cell phones at school, but they must be kept in their lockers in the off position. “Cell phones,” she says, “are not used for educational content.”

The consequences for using a cell phone during the school day are also concrete. Students receive discipline infractions if caught with their phones. Steketee says the first instance might result in a warning, but after that, a detention is issued and for a further infraction, parents will be contacted. She says parents and students accept the policy. Students who need to contact parents know they can use the phones in the office during the school day, and Steketee says that parents know to call the office if they need to get in touch with a child during the day.

As with any issue involving the junior high set, she says occasionally rules are broken, stating “sometimes they try to sneak their phones at lunch,” but adds “they know they are not to power them up until they leave school. Home room at the end of the day is not the time to use your phone.”

After receiving a lot of feedback from parents, District 97, Oak Park’s elementary and middle schools, implemented a similar program called Away for the Day at Gwendolyn Brooks and Percy Julian Middle Schools this fall. Stacie Klein, culture and climate assistant principal at Brooks, says the phones are meant to be off and in lockers. “Research has shown that if a phone is on their person or in a backpack or close by, they are distracted by it. You have to remove it from the space.”

She says parents, including medical professionals, proposed the district follow the national Away for the Day program. The previous policy left cell phone usage in the classroom up to the discretion of the teacher, which Klein says could result in power struggles when different teachers had different policies. Under the district’s previous policy, cell phones were not to be used in common spaces such as locker rooms or the cafeteria, and Klein says that remains the case.

Students know that if they are caught with a cell phone during the school day, it will be taken to the office where they can pick it up at the end of the school day. If caught with a phone three times, students have to turn their phones into the office at the start of the school day or leave it at home for the remainder of the trimester.

After four months, compliance is not 100 percent, but Klein says teachers are already seeing improvements. “Teachers are reporting that students are more engaged in the classroom and they are interacting more with each other out of the classroom in the cafeteria.”

While the junior high schools have both created policies with clear rules and consequences, Oak Park and River Forest High School is at the early stages of creating new policies and procedures. Dan Wolman, an OPRF history teacher, is part of a recently formed committee made up of teachers, counselors, social workers, and administrators who are working to develop procedures to put in place in the fall of 2020.  Wolman says the group is “looking to change the day-to-day expectations about phones in school.” He points to widely publicized incidents at the school last year involving pictures or messages air-dropped via cell phones during the school day and says not only was the cell phone the vehicle for those problems, but says those situations were inflamed by student use of cell phones in the aftermath.

The committee is considering a wide range of research on teen life and cell phones, which Wolman says focuses a lot on the mental health effects of cell phone use. The committee also surveyed parents and teachers about their thoughts. Wolman says the corresponding student survey which included questions about how phones are used at school, what the benefits are and when and where students use phones was eye-opening. “What the kids told us they were using their phones for often violated our codes of conduct — things like sharing homework or taking videos in the locker room. It really showed their thoughts on what is acceptable if they were willing to share this in the survey. They don’t always even know what is acceptable.”

The current cell phone policy at the high school leaves cell phone use in the classroom up to the teachers’ discretion. The handbook states that outside of the classroom, cell phones can be used in designated areas only, but Wolman says that part of the policy is currently not enforced. 

As part of its movement towards creating a policy, this fall, the committee rolled out an education campaign for parents and faculty, distributing information online and in pamphlets handed out at open houses and parent-teacher conferences.  Wolman says the next step is to educate students, and make sure they know that the change in policy isn’t punitive or just about taking something away.

“We’re really getting into the ‘why’ of why cell phones might not be great to use all day, says Wolman, “I describe it as giving something back, giving a reduced dependency on screens.”

This semester, the group is kicking off two pilot programs aimed at helping students experience time at school without their phones. The first is using a product designed by Yondr, frequently in use at concerts or comedy clubs, in which participants voluntarily put their cell phones in a pouch at the start of the event. The pouch locks and cannot be opened until the event is over. He said this pilot will take place on a limited basis in the Testing Center, where students take make up tests, and in the Tutoring Center.

In the second pilot, Wolman and a group of roughly 20 other teachers will be participating in Away for the Day and are working on getting students to participate as well. Students will drop off their phones before first period, and they will be locked away safely until the end of the school day.  Wolman says the pilot will run for three weeks and offer rewards to incentivize students to give it a try.

Adults will participate, too, Wolman says because, “The truth is, when we write our policy, we need language about how adults are using phones too.” He says teachers are good participants, but students are the key. “A voice that’s missing right now are the students who can speak to what it feels like to have a school day without a phone.”

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