Lax School Cell Phone Policies Put Burden on Teachers, Leave Students Confused

Lax School Cell Phone Policies Put Burden on Teachers, Leave Students Confused

Photo: An eighth-grade student turns her phone off after checking it during class. May 26, 2023 Credit: Elaine Cromie for Chalkbeat

By Amy Zimmer, Chalkbeat New York

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat. Sign up for their newsletters at

On its face, the cell phone policy at Forest Hills High School seems clear: Phones cannot be used in school and must be turned off during the day, unless a teacher allows them as part of a lesson.

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In practice, the picture is a lot more complicated.

Some teachers create their own rules, from zero-tolerance approaches like confiscation to more relaxed policies like allowing phones unless a class devolves into chaos, according to Stephan Menasche, a senior at the 3,400-student school in Queens.

The inconsistencies lead to students testing boundaries and giving into the irresistible pull of their phones to watch or create TikToks, text friends, or listen to music.

“There are classes where I’m not using my phone, and they’re interesting. It’s great because I don’t have to get distracted by the notifications or whatever,” Menasche said. “But sometimes the classes are really boring, and I would rather be on my phone.”

Forest Hills is one of hundreds of schools across New York City that instituted cell phone bans after the Education Department dropped the citywide prohibition in March 2015, a move that gave principals responsibility to create their own approaches. As Gov. Kathy Hochul mulls a statewide ban of cell phones in schools, the reality on the ground in New York City illustrates the complexities of such a large-scale effort.

Dozens of responses to a Chalkbeat survey on schools and cell phones revealed that the patchwork of policies not only between schools but within buildings creates confusion for students and a challenging learning environment for teachers to manage. NYC schools Chancellor David Banks told parent leaders on Thursday that he’s spoken to “hundreds” of principals, and overwhelmingly, they’re asking for a citywide mandate.

Enforcement of bans is a growing struggle, the survey showed, as phones have become more pervasive — at younger and younger ages. Storage of phones can be expensive, at a time when schools are seeing budget cuts. And surprisingly, parents are often the main sources of calls and texts to children.

If officials do impose a blanket ban, the details could play a key role in whether officials can achieve their goal of reconnecting students to classwork.

City officials don’t track how many schools have bans, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that schools are using to curb student cell phone access. Some have bought Yondr pouches, cloth carrying cases for phones that are locked from morning to dismissal. Some schools collect phones before first period and place them in cubbies. Others have general bans but let kids keep phones. Most schools have tiered discipline policies: A first strike might result in a warning; a third strike might involve confiscating a phone and calling a parent to pick it up.

At schools that don’t have a formal system for collecting phones or using pouches, educators say they spend a great deal of time seizing, monitoring, safeguarding, and returning phones. One Brooklyn high school health teacher who replied to the survey lamented how phones were cutting into his ability to build relationships with students.

Teachers are “in a position of watchdog and cajoler in order to get students to part with their device,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity for privacy reasons. “I can’t remember the last time the first words out of my mouth are: ‘Hello! Welcome to class. It’s fantastic to see you in school today.’”

But even some critics of phones understand why students want to hold onto their devices. Students may have part-time jobs or caretaking responsibilities in their families. And in the wake of high-profile school shootings, some parents feel safer being able to reach their children at any time.

“This is a complex host of issues that will not be solved just by ‘changing a policy,’” the Brooklyn health teacher said. “In the end, unless there is a mandate that comes with funding, personnel, education, and culturally-competent training, the policy is only on paper.”

Voices Grow Louder for Addressing Phones in Schools

Hochul’s call for a ban comes as a groundswell of experts and educators are speaking out that the current state of phone access in school isn’t working. Several other states are considering school cell phone bans, following such policies in Florida and Indiana.

Mayor Eric Adams has been raising the alarm about teen cell phone and social media use, with the city’s Health Department issuing an advisory that encourages caregivers to delay giving children a smartphone until 14. Earlier this year, New York City joined other municipalities in filing a lawsuit against five leading social media companies.

The national conversation around the damage caused by cell phones and social media is also ramping up. New York University Stern School of Business social psychologist and New York City public school parent Jonathan Haidt’s book “Anxious Generation” made the New York Times bestseller list, and grassroots activism is gaining traction across the country, led by New York City-based groups like Moms Against Media Addiction.

At a town hall in Brownsville, Brooklyn, last month, Banks told parents he read Haidt’s book and has been asking principals for input on the issue.

“All of them have said, ‘I agree. I think we should take the phones.’ They are distracting. They’re presenting all kinds of problems,” Banks said. He described students using phones to arrange after-school fights or parents calling in the middle of math class, asking kids to pick up groceries on the way home.

At a visit to Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Banks said he observed the school’s pouch system and heard from students who initially bristled at the policy saying they’ve come to appreciate how it’s encouraged them to talk to each other more.

“You all gave us a chance for our brains to breathe,” Banks recounted a student telling him.

A Brownsville principal told Banks that after her school started collecting phones every morning, the number of safety-related incidents dropped precipitously.

Chalkbeat’s survey results back up Banks’ concerns. Teachers are feeling “humiliated” as they’re ignored in their classrooms, as one respondent told Chalkbeat. Another wrote that the phones enable students to “bring the drama of outside life (friends, family) into the classroom which used to be a place where they could get away from such things.” Others described how the devices have fostered more cheating and plagiarism during class.

Dramatic Changes 10 years After NYC Lifts School Cell Phone Ban

Much of the current climate around cell phones and social media was unimaginable 10 years ago, when former Mayor Bill de Blasio lifted the cell phone ban in New York City schools. He said he did so in large part because of the inequities around the policy. Students were able to take their phones to school and keep them in their bags — unless the school had metal detectors. Those schools, which largely served Black and Latino students from low-income families, saw a cottage industry spring up around carts and small businesses charging kids $1 or more a day to store phones.

Back then, parents weren’t calling their kids as often. Teens weren’t widely using social media apps like Instagram and TikTok, and they didn’t have easy-to-hide AirPods.

Some educators saw an immediate shift once cell phones were allowed in schools.

Anita Pinto, a high school speech therapist in Manhattan, remembers that kids would often play Uno when they had free time. As soon as de Blasio lifted the ban, they stopped taking out the card game.

“Immediately after, they were like zombies,” she said. Things became more extreme after the pandemic, when students became accustomed to 24/7 access to devices in their homes.

One time recently when Pinto entered a classroom, she saw a student with a phone out, which was against the school’s rules. He refused to put it away when she asked, so she took it and said she’d return it at the end of the period. The student cursed and threatened violence.

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