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St. Anthony Middle School went cellphone-free this year, and behavioral referrals tied to negative social media posts are down from 30 or more a year ago to just one so far this school year, Principal Amy Kujawski said last week.

At Maple Grove Middle School, with cell phones gone, kids are happy and talking, eyes ahead in hallways and in the lunchroom, and no longer locked in power struggles with teachers, Principal Patrick Smith said.

The Minnesota House is hoping to build on such successes through legislation calling upon districts and charter schools to adopt cellphone use policies by March 15, 2025.

No one is dictating what the policies should say. But the state's elementary and secondary principals associations are to provide best-practices tips on how to "minimize the impact of cellphones on student behavior, mental health and academic attainment."

"Schools can have more cover if they want to take a more bold approach to restricting access to cellphones in schools," state Rep. Sandra Feist, DFL-New Brighton, said of the bill's strategy.

The challenge of separating kids from smartphones is apparent in Pew Research Center polling that shows more than 95% of teenagers have access to the devices and 54% say it'd be at least somewhat hard for them to give up social media. The center also found that 49% of 15- to 17-year-olds have experienced some form of cyberbullying, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota (NAMI).

But as districts grapple with setting policies, there also is an acknowledgment of the essential role that screen access played during the pandemic and the need to take individual student experiences into account. NAMI, for example, points out that some students who are prone to panic attacks may need cellphones as an accommodation to contact someone or to access calming apps.

Last summer, the Minneapolis school board weighed the idea of changing its student personal electronic devices policy to allow teachers to set their own expectations, with input from their students. But there was pushback from parents and teachers who deem cellphones as distracting and dangerously addicting, and the proposal was sent back to the board's policy committee.

'Off and out of sight'

Feist has teamed with state Rep. Kristin Robbins, R-Maple Grove, whose research into how social media companies target children with unsolicited content led her to the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — and an article he wrote that she shared with the seven superintendents in her legislative district.

"All children deserve schools that will help them learn, cultivate deep friendships and develop into mentally healthy young adults," Haidt wrote in The Atlantic in 2023. "All children deserve phone-free schools."

Of the various strategies that schools have employed, Haidt says letting students maintain possession of their phones — even with directives that they are to remain in pockets and backpacks unless used for class purposes — are "nearly useless" when it comes to achieving the goal of being truly phone-free.

He recommends the use of lockable pouches or phone lockers.

St. Anthony Middle School has an "off and out of sight" policy, meaning students not only must turn off the devices, but leave them in their lockers, Kujawski said.

"If it's in their pocket, they can feel it buzz," she said.

Last spring, the school conducted a three-week trial of the new policy following two years of increased distractions stemming from cellphone use and the onslaught of social media posts. With the trial run came messaging around the ill effects that phone use can have on learning and student mental health.

Now, with the policy being standard practice, kids still get caught occasionally with their phones. Two were turned into Kujawski's office last week, she said.

"But it is a more connected school — and the relationships are able to go deeper," Kujawski said.

At Maple Grove Middle School, students are allowed to keep their phones in their possession, but if "they come out for any reason," they are taken away, Smith said. The first time, students can pick them up at the end of the day. Second time, parents are contacted, too. Third time and every time going forward, it's the parents who must pick up the phones.

"It has been a very successful policy," Smith told a state House panel in March. "It's been well-supported by our families and by our entire community. And our teachers love it because the engagement that students have in class is incredible."

Feist said she believes that an "off and out of sight" policy is the way to go. But for now, she said, she is content to bring greater attention to the issue, and to take a lighter touch with the legislation.

The proposal now is part of a broader House education policy bill that will be the subject soon of House-Senate conference committee deliberations.