When students returned to school last month, one of many changes was a new statewide ban on cellphone use during instructional time in public school classrooms — unless teachers make a special exception. The Florida Legislature passed the measure in May.

Local teachers are applauding the move.

“As a classroom teacher I think they should be banned completely,” said Michelle Montero, who teaches at-risk students at Lakeland’s REAL Academy. “This is where 100% of problems stem from. … I do not have a problem with use during lunch because there is no way to control that outside of an all-day ban.”

Facebook notice to Lake Gibson High School students in August about the prohibition of cellphone use during class.
A Facebook notice to Lake Gibson High School students in August about the prohibition of cellphone use during class.

Lake Gibson High School Principal Ryan Vann said the new state statute and district rule have already had positive effects for students.

“We have seen a huge increase in engagement in classrooms without the distractions of cell phones,” said Vann.  He also praised the district’s one-to-one technology program, which provides a device like a laptop or iPad to students for their studies.

“The 1:1 initiative has allowed our students that utilize technology in the classroom without the use of their phones,” he said, adding that LGHS students are allowed to use their phones on campus before and after school and during their lunch break.

Natalie Cole teaches history and psychology at Winter Haven High School and said the school does allow students to use their phones during lunch and between classes. Teachers are also able to use their own discretion in allowing cellphone use in classrooms.

“I, as an educator, absolutely positively love the new cell phone law!” Cole wrote in a Facebook post to LkldNow. “I’ll let my students still use it during their last 3-5 minutes of class as they are about to be dismissed. I’ve never allowed phones in my classroom, but because it wasn’t consistent in other rooms, some students would argue when I asked them to put it away. Now, there’s a lot less of that. There is nothing left to argue about. It’s the law.”

District unveils new policy

In late August, Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Fred Heid posted a letter to PCPS families on the district’s website, informing them of the new law. He also said the district was working to formalize its policies — which it unveiled this week.

“Simply put, students should not be using phones (or other wireless devices) while classroom instruction is taking place,” Heid wrote. “At this time students are still allowed to keep their phones with their other belongings, but they should not use their phones during instructional time unless the teacher grants permission. Students who violate this rule can be disciplined according to the Code of Conduct.”

Heid said he understands that emergencies come up and during those situations students would be allowed to call parents or guardians.

“Teachers and school administrators will use their discretion in those situations,” Heid said.

During Tuesday’s School Board work session, Heid held a discussion with the board about the new formalized policy, which is being added to the Student Code of Conduct.

The statute gave school districts flexibility in how to implement the law. Some districts, including Orange County, chose to ban cellphone use all day, including between classes and during lunch. Others have invested in neoprene pouches with magnetic locks that cost about $16 each.

Polk County Public Schools has taken a more measured approach. Explaining the new policy, Heid said: “It does not prohibit students from using cell phones. It actually prohibits students from using them during the instructional period unless that instructor provides them permission to do so.”

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Fred Heid in September 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

“Right now, as a district, we would not support a teacher removing the device from students.”

Frederick Heid, Superintendent

He noted that the district had to provide guidance to schools regarding confiscating phones. Teachers have been told not to take them, but to allow administration to discipline students instead.

“It creates potentially an issue that should we confiscate the phones, what are the ramifications and what legal liabilities do we then assume should that phone get lost, damaged or stolen?” Heid said.

“Right now, as a district, we would not support a teacher removing the device from students or asking them to place them someplace else in the classroom. We were actually very explicit in that in our memo to teachers. And we said that if a student refuses to put their device away in class, that they’re going to notify their administrator and we will address it through the Student Code of Conduct. The reason for that is again, the teacher in and of themselves is creating a liability for themselves.”

Heid said if the teacher confiscates a device and doesn’t notice that the screen is cracked, a parent could then demand that the teacher pay to repair or even replace the device. Apple lists a new iPhone 15 Pro Max for $1,199.

PCPS statistics show the phone ban is being enforced. The violation of rules for a “Personal Communication Device” during August and September 2022 and the same two months this year show an uptick:

2022-2023 — 497
2023-2024 — 659

Designed for addiction

Part of the issue, experts say, is the addiction many people have to their phones. The website addictioncenter.com states that there are 3.8 billion cellphone users in the world, 6.3% of whom have a phone addiction.

“A USA Today survey noted 60% of smartphone owners found it difficult to not use their phones for 1 day, and 79% found it difficult to not use their smartphones for a month,” the website states. And, it adds, smartphones are purposely designed for users to become addicted. “The devices are carefully designed to be hard to put down.

Through its colors, sounds, and vibrations, the technology purposely keeps its users engaged. According to former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, features like ‘pull to refresh’ were inspired by slot machines and other casino games. “Designers and engineers meticulously develop every aspect of the device to create fanatical users.”

Many people with phone addictions check their phones hourly, looking to see how many likes, shares and retweets a post has received. They scroll and scroll, with a fear of missing out on someone’s life update or daily posts.

“When people receive a like or a new notification, the brain can release dopamine — which is the same chemical people feel when falling in love,” the addictioncenter.com website states. “Dopamine is a chemical in the brain which releases throughout the body after doing something pleasurable.

Harvard studies revealed the evidence in the connection between the social reward of a like and the presence of an activated dopamine pathway in the brain. Because of this, people can become addicted to social media, deepening behavioral addictions  through smartphone use. If they decide to stop, they may experience withdrawal-like symptoms.”

Social media has also been linked with depression and mental health problems among teens. Cruel posts and videos of hallway fights or embarrassing moments can have long-lasting repercussions.

Are all devices banned?

School Board member Lisa Miller said the district’s bylaws have a broad definition of wireless devices, which include laptops and iPads and electronic Notebooks, which can also access the Internet.

“I don’t believe that the intent here is to limit or restrict the ability to use these devices and learning,” said School Board staff attorney Chad Davis. “It’s really just to crack down on the use of the devices as a distraction during instructional period.”

School Board General Counsel Wes Bridges added that it’s an area that’s going to be fluid. But he cautioned that PCPS should not lead the way on this issue.

“Because as technology changes, and as people discover new ways to misbehave, which is an ongoing challenge, we’re going to have to deal with those,” Bridges said. “One of our great issues is that, you know, when I was in grade school, I wasn’t walking around $1,500 in my pocket. And now we have elementary school students who are doing just exactly that. And we have to be very, very careful to make sure that we don’t find ourselves in the position of being responsible, the school district, for loss or damage to something that an eight-year-old student has in his pocket.”

Social media flexibility

The new state law also prohibits and prevents “students from accessing social media platforms through the use of Internet access provided by the school district, except when expressly directed by a teacher solely for educational purposes.” And it specifically prohibits the use of the TikTok platform or any successor platform “on district-owned devices, through Internet access provided by the school district, or as a platform to communicate or promote any district school, school-sponsored club, extracurricular organization, or athletic team.”

The U.S. Military and the State of Florida prohibits the use of TikTok, a social media platform that involves uploading short videos. The site was founded in China. Cybersecurity experts say the Chinese government could mine data from TikTok to identify those with access to sensitive information and execute spear-phishing campaigns to gain access.

Teresa Griffin, the district’s senior coordinator for public records and School Board policy, said there are different WiFi networks for students and teachers, with social media blocked on the student WiFi.

However, access to social media at school can be made for teachers and adult club sponsors to post updates.

“This is coming from the statutes of how we address social media access for instructional purposes,” Griffin said. “So that is one of the gray areas. Now a teacher might choose that they are going to utilize social media based upon the statute for teaching. We also are required to teach (safe use of) social media .”

School Board member Justin Sharpless asked if social media platforms like Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), and Instagram could be used to promote school functions and club activities at schools. 

“If a school staff member, aka club or sponsor, has a district-approved social media platform site that’s used for educational purposes … it’ll be considered educational activity and it falls under the Code of Conduct,” Heid said. “It says students use of district-approved social media platforms and sites must be consistent with our Code of Conduct, so it does allow for it, but it does put the onus on the sponsor and ultimately on the school and then the district to monitor everything that’s being posted to ensure its appropriateness.”

Heid said it’s another lesson schools must teach students — the appropriate use of social media “and the understanding that even on some platforms that claim to be temporary, or messages that, you know, automatically delete or disappear, it never disappears,” Heid said. “Because somewhere someone’s screenshotted it and shares it someplace else or retains it.”

At Lake Gibson High School, Principal Vann has become a master at using Facebook, Instagram and X to promote the success of students and teachers, along with school activities. LGHS’s Facebook page has 4,600 followers, while its X page has 1,136 followers.

Vann and other administrators have recently posted things like a welcome back rally for teachers that included cheerleaders and the band’s drumline, encouragement to students to apply for college, pep rallies, and the recent birth of a calf and its gender and name reveal.

“As far as social media is concerned … we use it so well to show off what is happening at Lake Gibson High School,” Vann said.  “There are no barriers with Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for our own school use.”

Despite enforcement difficulties, policy is helping

Although the district can block social media on school-issued devices and student WiFi networks, it cannot control what students access on personal cellphones. For example, the school district has no way to block TikTok if it is accessed through AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile or another cellphone service.

And teenagers are still teenagers. Just as students in previous generations passed notes in class, there will always be kids who try to use their phones sneakily in class or make an extra trip to the bathroom to send a text. But Vann said the consistent, district-wide policy is helping. “The limited use of phones and social media during instructional time has created a better learning environment,” he said.   

Several teachers added that families can help by not texting their students during the school day.

Heid did not address smart watches or things like artificial intelligence websites like ChatGPT, which can generate essays.

Parents and grandparents who shared their views with LkldNow overwhelmingly favored the new laws. Many said there is some comfort in knowing their kids have the devices in case of emergency, but the devices shouldn’t interfere with education.

Kathy Smith Barsotti has grandchildren at McKeel Academy, Lake Gibson middle and high schools, and Wendell Watson Elementary.

“Phones should definitely not be used during class time. Or, really, anytime at school unless it’s an emergency. No messaging, tick-tocking, flipping through social media, filming school fights,” Barsotti said.

She added that it’s a “knee-jerk reaction” to demand banishment.

“The only sensical option involves time and trust with the student. For everyone caught abusing the privilege of having a phone, there are a score more who use it responsibly,” Barsotti commented. “But, that said, with things that have been occurring at school, if I was a student these days I’d be keeping mine in my pocket in case 911 needed to be called … or final goodbyes need to be said. Geez, what a world to even have to think that way.”

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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