Charlottesville schools have a cell phone problem. It’s gotten so bad the superintendent has characterized students’ obsession with their mobile devices as an addiction and teachers have said the district policy meant to curb cell phone use during school hours and class time is basically ineffective.
A group commissioned to develop a path forward has yet to form a consensus. School starts in a matter of weeks.
Charlottesville, of course, is not alone. Roughly 95% of teenagers in the United States say they have access to a smartphone, according a Pew Research Center poll. Those same teens say they are “almost constantly” online.
Last year, a volunteer committee of teachers, students, administrators and mental health professionals was formed to think up ways to regulate student phone use. The policy that group drafted was simple.
“That policy involved the pencil boxes,” Charlottesville High School teacher Andy Josselyn told The Daily Progress. “You put the phones in, it has a central location on each desk, so we weren’t taking the phones away from the kids, but trying to put a barrier in between them and the phone.”
It didn’t work.
“That was the policy last year and due to a whole lot of factors, it basically became ineffective,” Josselyn said.
Since then, different schools and different teachers have been using a variety of tactics.
“For a lot of teachers, it was just some amalgamation of strategies, or not, to deal with the issue,” according to Josselyn.
That is also not working.
At last Thursday’s Charlottesville School Board meeting Josselyn provided an example of just how bad it’s gotten: not just how much students are on their phones but what they’re using their phones for.
“In September, a fight broke out in my room, and in trying to break it up, I was punched in the face and knocked to the ground,” he said during the meeting. “Yet the real punch in the face was realizing that it had been filmed by a student and posted to social media. By the time I had one of the two students involved down to the office, nearly the entire school had seen it. Students in the hallway were pointing, smiling and laughing.”
City Schools Superintendent Royal Gurley has promised action, but what sort of action remains to be seen.
The school board commissioned a group in May to develop a plan, but that committee was unable to reach a consensus, according to Gurley.
For now, the plan is to retain the policy — the one teachers have described as ineffective. The issue, Gurley suggested, may not necessarily be in the policy itself but in the enforcement.
“I just think for the upcoming school year we have to have fidelity of implementation,” Gurley said. “We have to make sure that teachers feel supported and we really have to help students to curb this addiction.”
That word, fidelity, was echoed by City Schools spokeswoman Amanda Korman.
“For the upcoming school year we are not making any substantial changes to the cell phone policy,” Korman told The Daily Progress via email. “The plan is to kick off the year at Buford/CHS with very clear communication that last year’s cell phone guidance will be implemented with fidelity (cell phones go in pencil boxes during instructional time), and to continue to gather input about adjustments to this procedure as needed. We want to help students understand the ‘why’ of these practices — because reduced cell phone usage has proven mental wellness and academic benefits.”
A former Charlottesville High School student, Stella Gunn, actually put that promise of “mental wellness and academic benefits” to the test while she was still at the school.
“What I asked the students in my class to do was pick out certain apps or certain things that they were going to limit over the next two weeks,” Gunn told The Daily Progress. “I did interviews before they started this process where they shared their screen time and their general feelings about their attachment to their phone.”
Gunn tracked the students progress and said she “found a lot of evidence that with lowering your screen time in an intentional way or avoiding certain social media apps, people felt a lot better about their self, a lot better about how they spent their time and even the relationships they had with other people, their family and their teachers. It was kind of just an overwhelming, positive experience for most people.”
Gunn acknowledged that limiting or removing phones will make teachers and administrators less popular, but she said she wished someone would have done it when she was a Charlottesville student.
“I genuinely believe that my high school experience would have been improved by not having access to my phone, because I didn’t have the tools to necessarily limit it in the way I wanted to,” Gunn said. “It was never like, ‘Oh, I want to be on my phone during English class,’ but if there’s some drama or something going on in my phone that feels really urgent and personal, it’s really hard to make that choice for yourself to not be connected to it, and I think that we need the support of administrators even if that’s an unpopular choice.”
Meanwhile, as Josselyn prepares for students to return to the classroom, he is also preparing for an uphill battle under the current cell phone policy.
“I have every intention to try my best to make this new policy work with fidelity, as Dr. Gurley said, but I have my doubts based on just how human psychology works,” Josselyn said. “This is not like a normal issue of bad behavior gets punished. This is like compulsive addictive behavior that we know is not best solved by punishment. You have to come up with some solution outside of the punishment paradigm or you won’t fix it.”