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From lockable pouches to municipal fines: How two local schools keep cell phones out of the classroom

U.S. Department of Education data shows 77 percent of schools across the country prohibit the non-academic use of cell phones in the classroom.
Pouches given to St Catherine's students.png
Posted at 5:02 PM, Sep 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-06 19:21:23-04

MILWAUKEE — The first day of school for many students in our area means it’s time to put their cell phones away.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that 77 percent of schools across the country prohibit the non-academic use of cell phones in the classroom.

Let’s go ‘360’ to explain why two school districts have strict policies when it comes to prohibiting cell phones. Principals at Germantown High School and St. Catherine’s High School share how they came up with their policies and how they’re enforced. You’ll also hear from people who are at odds over the bans, but we start with a student.

“You’ve gotta go from like having your phone every day to like barely having your phone at all,” said high school senior Amiyah Patrick.

Studies show teens get a staggering seven hours of screen time on average each day, but most Wisconsin public school districts ban cell phone use in the classroom so students can focus on learning.

Patrick says she’s never allowed to even look at her phone at school and she thinks that’s a problem in the case of an emergency.

“We have things and emergencies to take care of outside of school, so if our phones are locked up, how are we going to get a hold of that emergency if we can’t have contact with our people outside of schools?” she said.

Akaisha Burney thinks students should be allowed to have their phones with them at all times in the classroom due to concerns over one type of emergency in particular.

"The mass shootings have been happening a lot more often,” she said. “I wouldn't say necessarily in our city, but who knows? But I think it's very important for them to be able to communicate with officers or even their parents, cousins, other kids in the school to let them know to get to safety or that they are safe."

Michael Arnold is the parent of a high school senior who thinks cell phones have no place in schools.

"It's a big distraction,” he said. “Whatever it takes to get them to do what they're supposed to do in school, so be it. I'm with it 100 percent."

The Germantown School District prohibited students from using cell phones during school hours back in 2008. Germantown High School Principal Joel Farren says that the ban eventually turned into a municipal fine for those who are caught.

"As a parent, I'm sure they want to have that communication with the student, I get that,” he said. “We've sort of looked at it as the overall benefit to academics.”

Principal Farren says it’s all about eliminating distractions, bullying, and academic dishonesty. That’s why the district requires students to keep their phones in their lockers.

"I talk to our new hires who come from other districts. One of the things they say is don't ever get rid of this policy,” he said.

School data shows the policy doesn’t always work. There were 149 cell phone violations last school year, which was the most in the last five years.

Germantown HS Cell Phone Violations .png

Principal Farren says a student’s first citation can come with a ticket of $250 for students who are 14 to 17 years old. A third citation costs a student nearly $500, but just 13 students actually had to pay a fine last school year due to a violation.

Germantown Cell Phone Citations.png

"We don't want it to just be about money, about punishment, but there has to be some level of consequence for it to be able to enforce the policy,” he said.

Down in Racine, St. Catherine’s High School takes a different approach. Principal Michael Arendt says the school purchased high-tech pouches for every student last winter to make sure they can’t access their phones in class.

"It was honestly like watching 460 kids go through withdrawals the first week,” Principal Arendt said.

He says when students enter the building, they have to put their phones in the pouch and it locks by tapping it against a magnet that can be found at every school entrance. Principal Arendt says an administrator is there to make sure it happens.

Principal Arendt says the decision was made after teachers struggled to keep students off their phones when they transitioned back to the building following a year of virtual learning during the pandemic.

"We're not trying to be punitive. We're really about getting students engaged back in the classroom,” he said.

Principal Arendt says there’s no going back after seeing the benefits.

"We've seen decreases in our failure rates, we've seen increases in academic performance from a grade perspective and our teachers love it because that's really one less thing that they have to police for the most part,” he said.

The Milwaukee Public Schools District declined to do an interview on this topic, but the district’s policy says students are prohibited from using cell phones during school hours. The policy goes on to say students who are caught with a phone will have it confiscated until administrators are able to speak with the student’s parent or guardian.

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