Seattle's Child

Your guide to a kid-friendly city

cellphone ban washington schools

HB 2018 would start the ball rolling on a possible statewide ban on cellphone use in school, with some exceptions. It would start with a study and a pilot program in volunteer school districts.

Should WA ban student cellphones in public classrooms?

A bill before the legislature would get that ball rolling

A whole lot of public school teachers, district administrators, and parents may soon be rejoicing if a bill introduced to the Washington State Legislature becomes law. The proposal starts with a volunteer pilot program and a study but would get the ball rolling toward a statewide ban on student cellphone use and other message-receiving devices during the school day. 

Exceptions would be made for students who need a device for medical or other excepted reasons, for example, a diabetic child who relies on a device to monitor blood sugar. 

A hearing on House Bill 2018, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie McClintock (R-Vancouver) was heard this week in the House Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

Addressing academic standards

During the hearing, McClintock said the bill was both personal and in response to school district requests:

“I bring this bill as a mom, battling cell phones with my own kids. And with a focus on wanting to find ways to increase our test scores in this state. We’ve got 60% [of students] meeting math standards and 50% percent meeting reading standards,” said McClintock. “This is a good solution to making some improvements in that area. Numerous studies indicate banning cell phones significantly increases test scores, with low-achieving students standing to benefit the most. Students openly admit that their cellphones distract them and that they focus better in school without them. Data unequivocally shows that restrictions see improved academic performance and less bullying, which improves mental health.” 

When it comes to the connection between test scores and student cellphone access, the bill points to a study from the London School of Economics. In that study, even a smartphone being used by a neighboring student can negatively impact test scores for kids, and banning cell phones improves academic outcomes for low-achieving students by over 14%. The study found that access to cellphones had no significant impact on high achievers. 

What HB 2018 does

House Bill 2018 would not require all schools to ban cellphones immediately. Instead, the bill requires the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to create a two-year pilot program to study different strategies for restricting student use of mobile devices at school. OSPI. Districts chosen for the pilot would volunteer to implement a variety of strategies to restrict student mobile device use during instructional hours. 

The analysis of HB 2018 provides a few examples of strategies that pilot program districts might employ, for example:

  • limiting cellphone use to specified time periods, designated locations, or during particular activities
  • limiting use by requiring students to leave mobile devices at the front of the classroom or in an administrative office or to place mobile devices in a secure container. 
  • offering exceptions for cellphone use for certain emergencies, for students with certain disabilities, for certain English learner students, for students with certain health conditions, or for instructional purposes.

Pilot sites would also have to agree to survey administrators, teachers, and students to gather their input regarding the pros and cons of the restrictions employed. Further, the bill requires OSPI to study policies and procedures restricting students’ use of cellphones that have been used in Washington schools and other states. Several Washington school districts already restrict use. 

Majority sign-in to support proposed law

During the hearing on HB 2018, 76 people signed up to testify before the committee – including 62 in support of the bill and 11 opposed to it.

“This bill makes sense because it is something that districts can implement at no financial cost,” says Kelsey Hamilton, a parent in Chehalis School District, where cellphones are already banned during class time. “Our board did pass a policy prior to the last school year to prohibit a cell phone during class time. [One] positive anecdote came from a mental health therapist who serves many of our students. She shared that a few months after prohibiting phone use in the classroom, many of her student patients indicated their grades had improved. She asked what they were doing differently, and they mentioned they were paying attention in class and understanding the subject matter better, along with getting their classwork done because they weren’t allowed to be on their phones.”

“Many students had been concerned prior that their classmates may be texting about them or taking photos or videos of them during class. And those fears were removed when the phones were required to be out of sight,” Hamilton added. “This bill is a good introduction to this topic; it gathers data and is the slow step in the right direction to help make a difference for positive student outcomes on many levels.” 

Others say a study isn’t needed

A representative from Conservative Ladies Washington told lawmakers that Washington does not need a study to know cellphones and classrooms don’t mix. “Conducting a study would delay a solution to the problem and require more taxpayer funding. We think guidelines around mobile devices would be better than some new state law that says school students are not allowed to have their phones out unless the teacher directs them to.

“We would suggest a committee or workgroup of teachers at the district level to help establish guidelines rather than at OSPI or at the state legislature,” the representative added. “We believe local decisions for implementing such policies or guidelines on this subject would be better than forcing schools to adopt a statewide OSPI policy.”

While 11 people signed into the committee hearing to oppose the bill, none testified during the hearing. 

Seattle Public Schools allows devices

Seattle Public Schools has not adopted a cellphone ban, although some buildings in the district do restrict use in classrooms. The district does have a Use Your Own Device policy that allows students to use personal devices in the classroom or during online learning periods to access and save information from the Internet, collaborate with other learners, and utilize productivity tools, such as OneDrive.

But when The Seattle Times recently asked its readers what they thought about cellphones in schools and potential restrictions, their answer was clear: The majority of survey respondents, many of whom identified themselves as teachers or parents, were opposed to cellphones in the classroom. 

“Banning cell phones and schools can yield positive effects, improve academic performance, and narrow the achievement gap,” stressed Rep. McClintock. “It is important to acknowledge that cell phones and technology can also be valuable educational tools when used appropriately. That is why this bill starts with a voluntary pilot program to research the best methods before being mandated.”

Read more:

We must hold the state accountable for adequate school funding

A call to expand school-based health centers

Free webinar on special ed due process

Leg 2024: Ensuring early support for 0 to 2

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for NestingInstinctsSeattle.com and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at Compasswriters.com.