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An Open Letter to Parents Who Oppose Cell Phone Bans (and the schools who listen to them)
The conversation around common-sense smartphone bans is too often hijacked by a dubious "safety" claim. It's time we challenged that.
Hello good people! On the agenda today is:
a story of one North Texas school district (to set the scene),
an open letter to parents who oppose school cell phone bans
and a final plea to combat what I’ve called Temper Tantrum Tyranny.
Let’s jump in.
This past summer, a number of school districts reflected on their experience with smartphones in school. Then they looked at the data on mental health and focus and, finally, they made plans to do the controversial, yet obvious thing and ban smartphone use during school hours. But then, parents complained and the school districts caved.
A Modern Tale
Richardson ISD, for example, planned to prohibit cell phone use during school hours for all students in grades 7-12. This would have been a return to the policy that nearly every school in America maintained until around 2010. When parents learned of this policy, however, many erupted in outrage.
Still, Richardson ISD didn’t just lie down. According to the Dallas Morning News, “Campus administrators spoke in support of the ban, not as a punishment but to help teachers and students.” One high school principal, Kristy Cage, explained how impossible and draining it was for teachers to police cell phones, which students expertly hid behind their chromebook screens. Another district high school principal, Chris Choat, added that, “Almost 90% of the discipline issues that (they) dealt with last year started with a cellphone” He claimed that issues with the cell phone were a primary cause of teacher burnout. This is no small consideration considering the rampant disciplinary challenges that afflicted schools across the nation last year and which have, in part, contributed to the worst teacher shortage in recent memory.
As Superintendent Tabitha Branum explained, “Teachers and principals have long recognized cellphones as a distraction and cause of behavior and disciplinary issues.” She emphasized that this was not a “good kid vs. bad kid” issue, but a result of the addictive nature of the smartphone, stating:
“I know that I sometimes find myself addicted to the cellphone. It’s a discipline, and we as the adults, our students come to school to learn and we need to help create an environment… that lets them know they are going to be just fine if they don’t see that cellphone during that learning time.”
In short, the problem is an environment that prompts students to make poor choices and makes it very hard to focus and learn. Richardson ISD recognized this and sought to change the environment so that it was more conducive to student success.
I applaud the courage of these educators to fight for what their experience and expertise told them was best. But the fact that they put up a fight makes me even more dismayed to see that Richardson ISD eventually caved to the belligerent parents and called off their cell phone ban. In what appears to be a sad attempt to save face, they’ve limited their policy to one pilot school: a junior high.
This is a great disappointment to many district parents who were in support of the original district wide ban on cellphones. One Richardson community member and parent, Euan Blackman, voiced his surprise that a cell phone ban hadn’t happened sooner, stating that “The ubiquity of cellphones has not brought about the responsible use or the common sense that one would have hoped would have co-evolved with such amazing technologies.” Well said.
Unfortunately, for all of us, society has not adapted to these novel, socially-disruptive technologies with wisdom or common sense. The trump card, which misguided parents have been quick to seize upon, is the claim that they need constant access to their student as a measure of safety. Parents utter “safety” and school districts yield.
Today, I’d like to offer a rebuttal to any and all who have to defend themselves against such nonsense.
There are two things every school in America should do right away.
Ban all cell phone use during school hours including during lunch and passing periods where their socially alienating effects are most apparent and disturbing. (Basically, this would restore the reigning common sense of 2008).
When parents begin to complain about this policy, send the following letter (you have my permission to take it, edit it, and use it for your specific context).
An Open Letter to Parents Who Oppose School Smartphone Bans
It has come to my attention that some of you are upset about our new cell phone policy, which requires phones to be turned off and locked in a Yondr pouch for the duration of the school day. Most notably, many parents have claimed that this somehow puts their student’s safety at risk. Specifically, I’ve heard parents state some version of: What if there is a Uvalde type of situation?
To that, I’d begin by noting the immense efforts we have made to learn from Uvalde, to hire more people to ensure the security of our students, and to tighten and refine policies so that troubled students are less likely to slip through the cracks and so that safety procedures remain paramount.
But we should be careful not to allow the mere utterance of “safety” to derail thoughtful efforts to do what is best for our students. Before we disregard the experience and collective wisdom of our teachers and administrators and accept the unsubstantiated claim that students are somehow less safe in school when they don’t have access to cell phones, we should hold that claim up to honest scrutiny.
It must be asked: In the event of a terrible active shooter scenario (which we all hope we never have to experience) how would having a smartphone protect students? I can think of many reasons that equipping an entire high-school population with smartphones would make the student population less safe in such a scenario:
Phones would fracture attention, distracting students from vital instruction and attempts to quietly signal students to take a certain course of action.
Phones would add brightly lit screens that reveal student locations in rooms that have been intentionally darkened.
Phones might encourage panic or, shameful as it is, encourage students to attempt to garner status by taking videos that go viral on social media.
I’m sure that there are clever parents out there who could come up with creative justifications for why the phone would actually keep their kid safer in such an awful scenario. But the reality is, we do not know and should not disregard cell phone bans based on the dubious claim that having access to phones makes our students safer. What we do know is that having smartphones on campus has been disastrous for campus discipline and for student focus, connection, and wellbeing. As much as anything else, smartphones have contributed to the staggering rates of mental health disorders that we now see.
What has become clear from many of the conversations I’ve had with parents is that the real root concern here is that many parents want to be able to text their kids throughout the school day. The safety claim seems to be less about keeping kids safe than using the most inflammatory excuse possible to serve these desires.
There is an increasingly common and misguided belief that parents should have access to their son or daughter at every moment. If you are among the parents or guardians who hold this belief, then I encourage you to consider the damage such a worldview is having on your burgeoning adult, and to weigh the significant costs of incessant smartphone distraction on their attention, connection, and wellbeing. Our culture is in a very bad way, indeed, if we seriously believe that our kids are unsafe any time they don’t have access to their own personal phone. That is not healthy.
Nor is it consistent with the expectations that parents hold in many other school scenarios. Parents do not insist that their kids can bring their phone out to football practice or mount it onto their trumpet in the marching band. There is no outcry when students are expected to lock their phones in lockers before PE. In elementary schools, where students are at their most dependent on adult direction, the schools have never allowed students to have smartphones and parents still overwhelmingly accept that common sense.
We ask that parents now accept a similar norm in high-school. It may be an inconvenience to some individuals, but this policy comes from the educated conclusions of our staff about what policies will create the best environment for the collective student body. Based on considerable evidence, we have determined that cell phone use is a significant problem for our schools and, most notably, for our students. We believe it is our duty to help and we hope that you will take the time to learn more about why at this website: (create a website with information and links similar to what can be found here: https://trottershane.com/resources)
Finally, I know the majority of you reading this already support the cell phone ban. For that, I’d like to express my deepest gratitude. As with all policies, there will be trade-offs and quirks to work out. Please be patient and keep in mind that the most profound benefits can only be gained when we commit to endure occasional inconveniences on behalf of a greater end.
Your name here
A Final Plea
I’ll end this post with a final plea to school administrators and teachers: You cannot please all parents and it is not your job to try. Yes you should strive for cordial relationships, but appeasing every parental temper tantrum is not serving your community—it is subjecting the community to a pervasive modern form of tyranny: Temper Tantrum Tyranny. Your job is not to be so neutral and spineless that no individual parent can ever find fault with you. Your job isn’t to default to inaction and the absence of opinion so that no action or opinion can ever be called into question—so that you can always defer blame. Your job isn’t to be completely value neutral and nonjudgmental.
Your job is to exercise good judgment (which is the definition of wisdom). Your job is to create the right environment—good soil within which students can thrive. Your job is to be the educational experts that, based on a constant pursuit of mastery in the field of human development, can provide the expertise our parents and communities need to navigate this exceptionally novel world.
The modern environment is littered with hypernormal stimuli and saturated in marketer manipulation. As a consequence, a host of dysfunctional norms have taken hold of our communities. Do not be an unwitting purveyor of human degradation. Stand against it. Fight for a vision that is more inspiring and fulfilling than the current ethos of mindless self-promotion and superficial gratification. Our kids deserve better.
Thank you very much for reading today! Please share this post with anyone who would find value here.
Have a wonderful week. Life is too short to be normal,