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Legislation to Ban Student Phones In School Fails; MRPS Allows Phones, With Some Restrictions

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In Montpelier, students are allowed to bring their phones to school, although rules vary by school. At Main Street Middle School, students are supposed to keep their phones in their backpacks or pockets all day, while at Montpelier High School, phones are to be put away during class but can be used between classes, at lunchtime, or in the library. Phones seem to be less of an issue in elementary schools.

Montpelier’s policies would have had to change if a bill banning smartphones in Vermont schools had passed this year. That bill, S.284, was modified in the Senate Education Committee this year to just require the Education Department to develop a model policy regarding phone use in schools. The scaled-back bill passed the Senate on a voice vote this year, but died in the House Education Committee. Advocates for banning phones in school say they will try again next year.

S.284 was sponsored by four state senators, including Washington County Senator Andrew Perchlik. “Smartphone use by children is very troubling, both because of the impact on their mental health and their ability to focus in school,” Perchlik told The Bridge. “Kids are up against a multi-million-dollar tech industry that has designed their products to be addictive.”

Laura Derrendinger of Middletown Springs is one of a group of Vermont parents who have been pushing for a ban on phones in schools and who supported S.284. She says that in schools where phones have been banned, student attention has improved and more library books have been checked out. “Everybody says it is like a weight has been lifted,” she said. “Students are talking in the halls again.”

The concept of banning phones in schools has received a push with the publication of a best-selling book by Jonathan Haidt analyzing the impact of smartphone use on young people (see sidebar). He argues that a school phone ban “ameliorates three of the four foundational harms of the phone-based childhood: attention fragmentation, social deprivation, and addiction. It reduces social comparison and the pull of the virtual world. It generates communion and community.”

Not everyone agrees phones should be banned in schools, or that the state should be telling school districts how to manage phone use. Parents like the ability to be in immediate touch with their children, school administrators say, and some educators — including Montpelier High School (MHS) Principal Jason Gingold — argue that schools are a place where students can be taught how to regulate their use of phones.

MHS: Still Figuring it Out

For some time, MHS has allowed students to use phones in school, just not in class. Last fall, MHS modified its policy so teachers are supposed to ask students to put their phones in a “shoe tree.” Gingold said cell phones are here to stay, and the school needs to help students learn how to manage and balance using them.

A mother who asked not to be named said she has heard some high school teachers are stricter than others about collecting phones at the beginning of class, and noted she has received texts at times when she knows her kids are in class. Another mother The Bridge spoke to said her high school child seems to be following the rules, as there are times of day she texts her child and does not get a response.

While they are theoretically off-limits during classes, MHS students can use their phones in the transition between classes, in the library, or at lunch time. What does that look like in practice?

According to Lissa Knauss, one of the two school counselors at MHS, many kids pull their phones out between classes. At lunchtime, “there are still kids talking with each other … and some who may go outside to toss a Frisbee, but there are a lot of kids sitting at a table not talking to each other because they all have their individual phones.”

Knauss worries that the phones are not helpful for some students. “For more introverted kids, it is easier to take out a phone and get immersed in it,” she said. “It is not helping them be engaged. It’s like a wall — it looks like they don’t want to be involved.”

Knauss has been at MHS for 13 years (and before that at Main Street Middle School and Barre Town Elementary), so she has seen phone use and policy develop over the years. One year, MHS tried having students put phones into locked “Yondr” pouches for the duration of each class, but she said the practice was unpopular with students and did not last long.

Brooks Dupree graduated from MHS in 2022 and recalls that the Yondr approach was tried his junior year, 2020–2021. “It is hard to separate kids and their phones,” he said. “There was a lot of push back from some kids; they were pretty upset about it. It was a hard change going from being allowed to have it in your pocket to putting it in the pouches.”

Dupree, who just completed his sophomore year of college, says the cell phone problem in college classes is “ten times” worse than in high school. “The professors don’t care if you are not there to learn. Some students prop their phone up behind their laptops and scroll social media all class long. It blows my mind – why are you paying to go to college?”

MSMS: Backpacks and Pockets

At Montpelier’s Main Street Middle School, students can bring phones to school, but they are required to keep them in their backpacks or pockets at all times, according to school counselor Jenna Bravakis, who has been at the school since 2010. When she started, few kids had phones, and there was no policy on the subject, but over time one was put in place because “we were really seeing an impact on kids’ ability to focus and be present.”

When Bravakis sees kids with phones in their hands, she tells them to put them away, but adds that “it would be naïve to think that kids are not going to the bathrooms and checking their phones.” She does not believe phones should be in school, noting that students already spend a good portion of the day on their Chromebook screens.

One problem Bravakis has seen with smartphones is that “a lot of conflicts start on smartphones, or start online outside of school, and then come into the school with the smartphones.” This is a problem that is also present at MHS, according to Knauss. “Kids are more likely to say harsh or mean things on a text or Snapchat that they will say face to face,” she said.

Over “Yondr” in Hartford

The Hartford Memorial Middle School is one Vermont school that has banned phones for the last few years, according to the school’s Dean of Students Pat Lincoln. Teachers had different perspectives when the policy came into effect, but now “no one would consider going back,” he said.

At Hartford, phones are locked away in Yondr pouches at the beginning of the day. Students keep the pouches with them until school officials unlock them at the end of the day, he said. Some parents have expressed concern about not being able to reach their children during the school day, but Lincoln noted the school has landlines and that in an emergency like a school shooting threat, “we need students attuned to us” and remaining quiet, rather than using their phones.

Another school where phones are put away in Yondr pouches for the full day — Illing Middle School in Manchester, Conn. — was featured in a May 1 Washington Post article. According to the article, teachers who were initially skeptical that the pouches would work now say they’ve been transformative.

One student quoted in the article said students are now chatting more face to face, and another said she had not realized what a distraction her phone was. She had kept her phone in her pocket, but it would buzz five to ten times a day, prompting her to check it.

Yondr pouches, made by a California company, are fairly expensive. The Illing district spent $31,000 to buy pouches for the middle school, according to the article. But their use is spreading. In Providence, R.I., all the middle schools and two of the high schools use Yondr pouches, the article said. And Massachusetts now has a federally funded grant program for schools to purchase “materials to secure student electronic devices while on school property (e.g., pouches, lockers, caddies, or other).”

All the Montpelier educators interviewed for this article agreed that things would be better if somehow kids did not have phones in school. Knauss said the need to repeatedly tell kids to put away their phone, and in some cases take the phones away for the day after a warning, is stressful for educators and damaging to their relationships with students.

But MHS principal Gingold is wary of the statewide phone ban discussion. For one thing, “kids may panic and be anxious if they think phones will be banned,” he said. Gingold also expressed concern that a statewide ban would put undue pressure on school administrators to enforce the law. “We’ll be checking for cell phones all day,” he said. 

“Any state policy needs to be well thought out,” Gingold said. “It has to be a true partnership among the stakeholders.”

Next issue: at what age should children get smartphones?

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