When students return to school in September they will find a new set of rules concerning the use of cell phones and other devices, including smartwatches.
The new policy, passed at the July 27 Peninsula School District board meeting, states that telecommunication devices can be accessed only before and after the regular school day and during the student’s lunch break unless an emergency exists involving imminent physical danger or a school administrator authorizes the student to use the device. Use on buses and at events after school hours will be allowed.
“Coming out of the pandemic we’d seen an increase in poor behavior with regards to cell phones and social media,” said Kris Hagel, digital media communications coordinator for the Peninsula School District.
“Everyone was complaining — teachers, parents, administrators,” he said. At all high schools and middle schools, students were buried in their devices, responding to constant notifications, not paying attention in the classroom or hallways. One desperate parent told him they were considering inpatient treatment for addictive behavior.
“We have been a permissive district compared to others,” Hagel said. “We believe fundamentally that students need to learn appropriate behavior on social media and cell phones in the vicinity of caring adults. But we can’t make progress if we can’t get kids off the devices to start with.”
The policy also addresses the appropriate use of devices. It prohibits using them at any time in a manner that poses a threat to academic integrity, disrupts the learning environment, or violates the privacy rights of others. Any possession, sharing, or viewing of sexually explicit material is prohibited at any time on school grounds, at school-sponsored events, or on school buses.
District staff developed the policy beginning with a template from the Washington State School Directors’ Association and sought input from the board and school administrators. ASB presidents from both Gig Harbor and Peninsula High and student representatives to the school board met with the board to give feedback.
“It was a great conversation with our student leaders,” said PSD board president Natalie Wimberly. “They really understood the issues. They don’t want this distraction in the classroom.”
Student leaders are planning assemblies and a video to help their peers understand the problem. Wimberly said that the board is looking forward to working with students from Henderson Bay as well.
Wimberly said that she has had more feedback from parents since the policy was made public than at any time since the numerous debates around Covid regulations and that it has been overwhelmingly positive.
Parents, Wimberly said, were concerned about safety and wanted assurance that they would not lose the function of tracking apps during the school day or that they could reach their children in case of emergencies. For this reason, the policy requires that devices are not accessed, but they do not have to be turned off.
“Our goal is to build responsible digital citizens,” She said. “It’s not about eliminating the technology but teaching students how to use it and at the appropriate time.”
PHS initiated a cell phone use policy after spring break in 2023.
“Cell phones had become all-consuming, and we noticed a huge rise in a lack of focus from students in the classroom,” said PHS Assistant Principal Danielle O’Leary. “The school administration and staff leadership team designed a cell phone policy to provide a concrete, consistent policy for our students.”
Students were hesitant and frustrated at first, O’Leary said. Some students struggled with the new rules, especially for the first few weeks. But soon the frustration dissipated. There were fewer distractions in the classrooms and there were no more interruptions from teachers asking students to put away their devices. “Ninety-nine percent of parents said thank you,” she said.
The new electronic device rule was approved alongside policies on digital citizenship and media literacy, electronic resources, and internet safety. The digital citizenship and media literacy policy, Hagel said, formalizes much of what teachers are already doing — incorporating lessons into regular classroom work.
The new policies come at a time when there is increasing awareness of the potential hazards of social media on young people. The 2023 U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health stated that up to 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 say they use a social media platform, with more than a third reporting almost constant use.
“While social media may have benefits for some children and adolescents, there are ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents,” the report said. It cited studies showing teens who spent more than three hours a day on social media had double the risk of poor mental health outcomes and that limiting that exposure resulted in benefits.
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