North Carolina schools are working on defining phone use policies in the classroom

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.


Story by Lesley Gonzalez
UNC Media Hub Student Correspondent

Multiple states across the U.S. have worked toward tightening their policies on phone use in schools in recent years, but students and faculty in North Carolina have mixed reactions.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 76% of U.S. schools banned non-academic phone use as of the 2021-2022 school year. A bill called for a study on school phone policies in North Carolina. Carrboro High School has an official policy against phone use, but according to a student, enforcement varies.

“The teachers are supposed to monitor our phone use and not allow us to go on our phones,” said Joe Smith, a senior at Carrboro High. “But a lot of times the teachers are like, if you guys finish your work, you can go on your phone, but then others are very strict on that and make you keep your phone in your backpack.”

Students across North Carolina schools have differing opinions on cell phones being banned at school. Smith, for example, said that not being able to use his phone during class doesn’t really bother him.

“I think it’s good because it keeps me focused on what I have to get done in class,” Smith said. “For some kids it’s harder than for me, but I honestly find it pretty…It’s not a big deal. Like I have a lot of time to go on my phone in between classes if I need something. And if you get a call from a parent, they always let you take it off like that.”

Aastha Patel from Panther Creek High said restricted phone use is a setback.

“Personally, I don’t like it. I feel like using your phone is just a good way to look something up really quickly. Or honestly, I feel like just having it and being able to take a break from work really quickly for like five minutes is really good,” she said.

A 2023 study by Common Sense Media found that during school time, 97% of participants were found to be using their phone. The median number of pickups during the school day was 13, ranging from less than one to 229.  This extent of use keeps mobile phones at the forefront of discussion amongst many school boards and for many teachers and principals.

“I think it’s important for students, during that time in class, to focus on the learning experience,” said Steven Sullivan, principal of Chapel Hill High School.

Sullivan became principal of CHHS in January and is working on formulating an official phone policy for the school. He said he hopes to have it ready by the start of the 2024-2025 school year.

“It pretty much has been left up to the individual teachers here at the school as to how they want to do it in their classroom,” he said. “A few of them will collect the phones when students come in. Some of them will have students put them in the bag, some teachers allow the students to use them throughout the class itself, there’s not a consistent school policy at this point.”

Panther Creek also does not have a phone policy, leaving teachers making the decision of how to handle phones in their classrooms.

“The school [Panther Creek High] doesn’t have a specific policy. But a lot of teachers will, like, make students put their phones in their bags or collect them in the front of the room or something like that,” Patel said. “Each year is different. I remember freshman year, I think about like three of them would do it. And then now and then in senior year you would have one, maybe two.”

For Sullivan, however, consistency seems to be key to improving the classroom.

“The staff would like a consistent policy, and I think that’s something that we will [discuss] in our meetings. I’m hearing that that tends to be an issue in class. And I think I’ve actually had several parent meetings where they are in support of some type of use or cell phone policy,” said Sullivan. “One of the things I found over the years: if you don’t have a set policy in place, that is consistent across the school, it is hard to enforce it for students.”

Sullivan has been a principal since 2007. He led North Brunswick High School for more than four years before coming to Chapel Hill High School in January.

“At my previous school, before I came here, we had just kind of done the same thing, created a policy that for our school, phones were not allowed to be used during the instructional class time, unless it’s for a class project or something,” Sullivan said.

“We weren’t saying ‘You can’t have them at all,’” he said. “But we want to make sure if you’re using them is for a specific, necessary purpose. For a few weeks, because it was something new, it was trial and tribulation. But we got through it once it became a standard across the school. It became a standard, and it was a lot easier on everyone.”

A consistent policy can help clarify things for teachers, students, and parents. But punishment can still be a very case-by-case event, according to students.

“Usually it’s not that heavy. I feel like most teachers will just give you a warning and they keep giving them [students] warnings,” Patel said.

Teri Hutchens, the principal of Collaborative College for Technology and Leadership early college in Iredell County, said her school has three main levels of punishment for inappropriate or disruptive phone use: the first time is a warning, the second is a warning and parent contact, the third time is the phone being revoked for a day, and so on.

However, even these three levels have their variations, as Hutchens notes that sometimes teachers have “tech-heavy” days that require phone use for different things.

“I mean, you can do that [work] on your laptop, but if they’re [students] going outside for an instructional activity, and they’re measuring and they’re keeping some data, I mean, it’s easier to carry your phone outside than it is to carry your laptop outside,” she said.

Hutchens explained that there’s no punishment for phone use on days like this. She said that the consequences for phone use are regularly case-by-case regardless, and teachers can determine what is appropriate within their classrooms day to day. Sullivan from CHHS also noted that different classes seem to have different needs.

“With one of our digital media classes, they [students] are actually editing and doing some filming [on their phones],” Sullivan said. “So they’re using their phones out doing that during the class period. But again, that’s something that if you’re carrying around a clunky laptop it’s hard to do. So it’s much easier. And so there are times when it [phone use] should be permissible in the school as part of the lesson as well.”

Hutchens finds that a highly strict policy is simply not necessary for her school.

“Truthfully, for our school, by and large, our students are respectful, pretty well behaved, it’s a school of choice, you know—not to say that we are immune to cell phone issues, because we are not,” she said. “But considering the volume of issues, we just want the students and parents to have the comfort of being able to communicate in between classes.”.

Comfort and ease of access between students and parents is one of the biggest points that comes up during conversations on phone use in school. Emergencies, schedule changes, and other issues can affect how students and parents communicate.

For Heather Day, a parent from Iredell County whose daughter attends CCTL, phone use simply isn’t necessary throughout the school day.

“I feel like phones are very distracting for everybody. And they’re very much used in today’s world excessively,” Day said. “So I just feel that there’s plenty of time afterwards to use your phone if you need to. If there’s an emergency, then, you know, I can call the school or get in touch with them in different ways; through friends who work there, that type of thing. So I feel like personally, I don’t like the idea of using phones during school at all, as a parent.”

Students, parents, and administration alike complain that mobile phones are distractions instead of tools.

“Sometimes like when we’re allowed to use it and I get bored, I’ll just go check on my phone and see like what’s happening,” Smith said. “But I mean, a lot of the times, I try to stay focused because those teachers think it represents like a college class almost, where they’ll give you the freedom to check your phone. But I mean, if you miss it, you miss it, and they’re not going to go back over it for you. But it’s definitely a bigger distraction knowing that you can check it.”

Teri Hutchens from CCTL also found that distraction is a primary reason behind encouraging students not to use phones during class time.

“With what research is showing, it is so much about distractibility. You know, students these days are highly susceptible to distractions,” she said. “We get so few minutes anyway, of trying to get high quality learning done, that we can’t afford the distractibility.”

NBC News reported earlier this year that teachers feel the strain of distracted students in class. According to the article, when phones are physically removed, students are more likely to be engaged and participate with their peers and teachers.

Steven Sullivan at CHHS is very motivated by the chance to teach students how to manage themselves, which is a huge motivation behind his approach to phone use.

“Giving them [students] an opportunity to use their phones during the day to check in and make good choices and being able to monitor their phone use during the day. I think that’s an important lesson for them as well,” Sullivan said. “As they’re moving from middle school to high school, [it’s about] giving them a [few] more opportunities to grow and show maturity and to learn how to use their phones properly.”

Though Teri Hutchens agrees that it is important for high school students to learn how to use their phones properly and appropriately, she also notes that a significant reason behind more intensive phone policies is simply encouraging students to be good communicators off-screen.

“If students aren’t ever not on their devices, and that includes their laptops, then their interpersonal skills are suffering, their communication skills, their collaboration skills, even their comfort in talking to each other, you know, just making friends,” Hutchens said. “We’re just trying to be good stewards of them as human beings, you know, beyond just academics and learning.”

Hutchens’ goal is to bring up conversations about students and their well-being in general. In 2020, the Canadian Medial Association Journal found that over-use of phones can lead to various mental issues such as self-harm, suicidal thoughts and decreased socioemotional performance. This is also alongside other physical effects such as sleep deprivation.

“It’s not just the distractibility, it’s mental health,” Hutchens said.

Parents, students and administrators are all approaching the phone use question differently within North Carolina. The issue has gained traction among state lawmakers as well. Florida and Indiana have passed laws banning cell phone use during the school day; other states, such as Oklahoma, Kansas and Vermont, are considering similar legislation.

Access to their phones affects students differently than parents. For administrators, keeping students engaged remains at the top of their priority list. According to school leaders, though, it seems that incoming policy might err more on the stricter side, just to make sure students are able to keep up with a consistent standard.

“It’s easier to start strict and back off, than it is to start more lenient, and try to become more strict,” Hutchens said.

Student engagement is a top priority for schools across the state. Principals like Hutchens and Sullivan’s main goal is to ensure that policy works to encourage it.

UNC Media Hub is a collection of Hussman School of Media and Journalism students who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from around North Carolina. TLR supports UNC Media Hub students by publishing their articles and photos.

Lesley Gonzalez is a senior from Harmony, NC, majoring in Media and Journalism. She has experience in reporting, photography, graphic design, and communications. She hopes to pursue a Master’s in strategic communications at the Hussman school and work in marketing in the future.

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