GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — While state lawmakers consider a bill that would ban the use of cell phones in schools across Michigan, it’s been the reality for a local school district for years.
No phones have been allowed in Forest Hills Public Schools since the fall of 2019. Leaders first tried it out at a few buildings before making it the norm district wide.
Superintendent Dan Behm said parents, teachers and the administration have not looked back since.
“The decision was made to create school as a sanctuary for learning,” Behm said. “A place that’s free of distractions of whatever type it could be.”
It was clear phones were a distraction, Behm said.
“Any time you hear it vibrate, ping, chirp whatever it does, your brain thinks, ‘What is that?’” Behm said. “Instead of being focused on what my math teacher was saying, I’m thinking, ‘When is the next time I can look at my phone?’ When we’ve taken that distraction away, it’s really helped students focus and our principles and teachers report it creates a better environment in the school.”
What surprised the superintendent is that students appreciated the ban. He said students have reported feeling more focused and less stressed.
“Students have told us this has been freeing for them,” Behm said. “Because they’ve got a six, seven-hour period where they don’t have to look at their phone. And they know their friends aren’t also posting something at the same time. It’s allowed them to focus on learning.”
Behm said one student described the ban a “universal disarmament.”
“There’s no fear of a peer or a friend posting something that they’re going to miss,” Behm said.
Now, there is an effort to ban cell phones in schools across Michigan.
Under State House Bill 6171, introduced by Rep. Gary Eisen, R-St. Clair Township, public schools would need to prevent students from using phones in the classroom, in the halls and even on the bus. HB 6171 is currently stuck in the education committee.
Although Behm said the change has been positive for Forest Hills, he does not support a statewide mandate.
“I’m one that believes strongly in local control,” he said. “So individual school districts and parents and parents on a school board coming together and coming up with what’s best for their school. That’s what makes sense.”
If a Forest Hills student uses their phone, they won’t get it back until the end of the day.
If it happens again, parents need to get involved. But Behm said that’s been very rare.
“It’s not been a big issue for us,” he said. It’s something that in the classroom environment, it’s created a new norm, a new environment, and students understand it. And like I said, I think many of them appreciate the break from not having to look at their phone all the time.”
If there is an emergency and students need to get in touch with their parents, there are landline phones in classrooms. Plus, students still have their own phones on them — they just need to be put away unless there is an emergency.
Parents have also supported the decision, Behm said.
“I think parents understand that there is a time and place for these tools,” he said. “And what we’re trying to do is have students understand how to use it as a tool.”
The superintendent also said that the removal of phones has improved students’ communication skills and “made everyone more present.”
“What we have are students that spend more time interacting with themselves as peers and also interacting with the adults in the school in a face-to-face analog environment,” he said.
Long story short: staying unplugged is here for the long haul at Forest Hills.
“Kids and teachers and parents haven’t looked back since,” Behm said. “Sometimes there are decisions that fall at the district level, there are people that like it and others who do not like it at all. This has been one that over time more and more people have really liked it.”