A teacher and union representative for Benjamin Franklin High School in Highland Park, Monica Whalen, said she is in a different generation from her students. Still, she said she understands being addicted to your phone.
“I have NPR podcasts and news stories, and then I’ll play a silly game here and there,” Whalen said.
Whalen is also a local school leadership committee co-chair with Benjamin Franklin’s principal. Whalen said their committee, which includes parents, teachers, students, staff and administrators, voted to implement a new cell phone policy at their school last month. The new policy only allows students to use cell phones at school during passing periods and lunch or with teacher permission; also, phones must be kept behind in class when a student leaves a class to go to the restroom, Whalen said.
“We had students who were videotaping vandalism, and using their phones to organize drug sales and videotaping fights,” Whalen said. “So it’s a safety issue; the phones are left behind. If you don’t have your cell phone with you, you can’t coordinate: ‘Okay, meet me here in this classroom or that classroom, and let me drop this off.’”
According to Whalen, she did have two parents who expressed concern about what would happen if there was a lockdown and their child did not have their phone on hand if they were in the restroom.
“I understand that parents are concerned about their child’s safety,” Whalen said. “If [a lockdown] were to happen, they’re going to go into a room and there will be somebody in that room who has a cell phone that can communicate.”
An English and literature teacher at the school’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) magnet, Steven Avalos, said he voted in favor of the new cell phone policy. He is an alternate for the local school leadership committee, and he said he thinks that most students have accepted the new policy.
Whalen said teachers had been asking for an official cell phone policy to set standard student expectations because some teachers had different rules.
For Avalos, he said he has been very strict about cell phone usage since the beginning of the semester.
“I was making a lot of phone calls home, and asking the dean to intervene,” Avalos said. “Students cut down on phone use dramatically in my class because it was an epidemic. Really, I mean, it was like playing Whac-A-Mole.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, many students have lost a lot of understanding of social norms, Whalen said, and the cell phone problems have become worse.
“I had one student who was on his phone watching a TikTok video while his classmate was giving a presentation,” Whalen said. “I had another kid just looking at Instagram.”
She said she does not remember what the TikTok video was about.
“I don’t want to know,” Whalen said.
Whalen’s child, Riot Renwick, is a ninth grader who goes to the school and he said he spends time on TikTok watching emos and random political content. Renwick said he listens to hyperpop, punk, folk punk, alternative rock and a little bit of metal on his phone.
“This school system also induces a ton of anxiety, and music for me is a huge coping mechanism,” Renwick said.
He said that kids were talking about just turning in an old phone and keeping a regular one when leaving for the restroom.
“Very few people were fine with this,” Renwick said.
Whalen said she made a phone jail — a cardboard box that is decorated with a hippo for students to drop off their phones if they leave her class to go to the restroom.
Renwick said he understands that teachers want to be able to actually teach the children.
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