FUSD Needs Updated Cell Phone Policy

Cell Phones in School

In late January, the Fresno Bee ran an article titled “Fresno Unified’s Phone Policy Is 20 Years Old. Teachers Say They Can’t Teach, Need Support.”

In the article, some Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) instructors observed that the growing presence of digital devices has significantly diminished their capacity to teach.

It recounted an experience of Peter Beck, a social studies instructor at Fresno High. He had tried to stop a student from obsessively using his phone—only to provoke an incident that absorbed 25 minutes of class time and involved a vice principal and a campus safety assistant.

The incident that Beck described isn’t unique. Before retiring from the district in 2016, I tried to get one of my German I students to put away his phone. The situation escalated, unfortunately, to the point where I also had to call a campus safety assistant to intervene. Other FUSD instructors have faced similar scenes in the past few years; in one such instance, a teacher was physically assaulted.

The Bee article suggests that many teachers have given up trying to limit student phone use, given that site administrators and the district as a whole usually won’t back up their efforts.

Indeed, Beck suggests, this situation has impacted the very notion of effective teaching, nudging instructors to become entertainers so as to compete with the online content that many of their students are often absorbed in.

The article also notes that the district’s current policy concerning electronic devices hails from 2004—well before the widespread use of smartphones.

This vintage 2004 directive limits students’ use of devices in classrooms—unless a physician has deemed their use to be necessary for a student’s health—and suggests that site administrators “may have the Equipment confiscated and/or the student may be prohibited from possessing the Equipment.” It does not, however, establish a binding policy for all FUSD schools.

In the absence of such a measure, according to district spokesperson Nikki Henry, “schools have the authority to build upon these policies for what works best at their campuses.” Some sites, notably Bullard High and Hoover High, have developed stricter measures to regulate the use of electronic devices on school grounds, but these sites remain the exception.

Another district spokesperson, A.J. Kato, has said that work is under way to bring the policy up to date for inclusion in the 2024–2025 handbook.

The piece in the Bee included the comments of a veteran FUSD instructor who noted that “students know the district won’t enforce the [2004] policy with any consequences” and reported “that with each passing year, smartphones become more visible and distracting in class.”

To its credit, the story sounds an alarm about widespread phone use and abuse in classrooms, something that clearly diminishes students’ opportunities for educational growth.

Such consequences should be taken seriously under any circumstances, but they’re especially disquieting in the light of recent standardized test results.

According to the New York Times database, FUSD’s third- to eighth-grade students are now about two years behind the level that their counterparts were at in pre-Covid 2019. That’s significantly lower than the average results reported across California, and far below the national average, to the extent that figures have been made available in various states.

Such statistics should be a call for prompt and decisive action that addresses this issue. By itself, such a move wouldn’t guarantee a sea change in the district’s test results, to be sure, but it could, along with the district’s literacy initiative, play a pivotal role in overcoming the learning loss that the pandemic wrought a few years ago.

On the other hand, far more is at stake for many students than merely a severe blow to their educational progress.

By concentrating on the academic consequences of digital distractions, the story in the Bee actually winds up downplaying the gravity of the situation. It sidelines the disturbing psychological and social consequences arising from these devices and the way that they’re being used.

This became apparent at the end of January when the Senate Judiciary Committee summoned several leaders of the tech industry—including the heads of Meta and TikTok—and excoriated them for the harm that their products have done to young people.

In a rare show of bipartisan unity, Democrats and Republicans stood shoulder to shoulder in their condemnation of the companies’ willingness to pursue profits at the expense of children’s emotional health. A video included in the proceedings, the New York Times reported, featured underage victims of sexual exploitation who criticized the tech firms’ conduct.

Such comments as these, of course, should hardly be front-page news.

Last May, the surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, went on record about these dangers. In a public advisory release, he argued that social media can have “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

His 19-page document notes that media consumption can lead to significant changes in key parts of children’s and adolescents’ brains and could well impact individuals’ emotional and social behavior. Online sites can have a particularly damaging effect in the early stages of adolescence, he notes, when “brain development is especially susceptible to social pressures, peer opinions and peer comparisons.”

Indeed, people studying this issue have been sounding the alarm for a few decades already.

Joel Balkan examined the strategies of child marketing at length in his 2011 book Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children. In it, he observes that “having discovered that manipulating children’s emotions is a formula for success, kid marketeers push that formula as far as they can, doing whatever it takes without apparent constraint or concern, to work the emotions of youth into profit.

“It is this dynamic…that drives them to ramp up media violence, cultivate addiction, cynically exploit social network friendships, sexualize girls and promote hyperconsumerism.”

Several high school teachers have noted that a substantial number of students in their rooms are on their phones or listening to earbuds during a large chunk of class time. In light of Dr. Murthy’s warnings and Balkan’s findings, it seems important to understand such behavior as a safety issue—as a likely detriment to students’ cognitive and emotional well-being.

One district teacher suggests that a no-nonsense policy that pulls no punches would be an ideal approach. “If the student has a device out (or earbuds in), they are wrong. No discussion.”

He also pointed out that there’s now a window of opportunity for the district to introduce such a game-changing, district-wide policy. After all, Bob Nelson, the current superintendent, has just announced that he’ll soon be leaving the district to take a position at Fresno State.

A new superintendent could well decide to tackle this issue promptly. Indeed, this new educational leader could even opt to make the upgrading of the phone (or “digital devices”) policy one of his or her topic priorities.

There are many reasons (academic, psychological, social) why the district should feel compelled to take action in this area—to move fast and fix things, as it were.

Maybe even before the installation of a new superintendent.


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