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When a Hillsborough middle school banned cell phones, here’s what happened

Parents adapted. Conflicts diminished. And, it is hoped, students are learning more.
 
Students get out of class to take a break for lunch at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa.
Students get out of class to take a break for lunch at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Dec. 5, 2023|Updated Dec. 5, 2023

Science teacher Heather Manter is going over mathematical terms such as “parallel.” Civics teacher Roberto Ramirez is explaining what it means to write a check.

In both classrooms at Webb Middle School, eyes are up front and everyone is alert.

No one is looking at a cell phone.

The Town ‘N Country school is three months into an experiment that others are contemplating as educators tire of digital distractions: an all-day ban on cell phones.

A sign is displayed inside a classroom that bans the use of electronic devices at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa.
A sign is displayed inside a classroom that bans the use of electronic devices at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

When students gather before the first bell, all their phones must be stashed in bookbags. Unless a teacher gives explicit permission — for example, if a non-English-speaking student needs a translation app — the phone must stay there until dismissal.

Principal Glenda Vinueza got the idea after a challenging year switching from her long-time position at an elementary school to the rough-and-tumble middle school world.

A mother of three who forbids phones at dinner, she recognized the devices as a common denominator when behavior went awry.

Then, in May, the Legislature moved to restrict cell phones in Florida schools. Pasco Superintendent Kurt Browning announced a stringent policy for his district a month later.

Vinueza wondered: Could Webb do the same? Or even better?

She talked to staff. She warned the Hillsborough schools superintendent, “You’re going to hear a little bit of noise, probably.”

But so far — no noise. In fact, Vinueza said, parents have thanked her for an environment in which students are focused more on lessons than on TikTok.

Students, for the most part, comply. When they don’t, they’re asked to turn over the phone until the end of the day. There’s rarely an argument.

Seventh grade student Aniyalis Diaz interacts with her friends during lunch at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa.
Seventh grade student Aniyalis Diaz interacts with her friends during lunch at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Parents elsewhere in the district express misgivings about restricting phones. Some teachers favor banning them from the classroom, although others require the phone for class assignments.

On a recent visit to Webb, the Tampa Bay Times found consistent praise for the arrangement.

Assistant principals, teachers and students told the same story: Like many other middle schools, Webb last year was a place where students texted each other to meet in the bathrooms and vape.

Students would cyberbully. They would arrange and advertise fights, sometimes just off campus. Parents complained to a local television station.

Without phones, those distractions have faded away.

Daniel Vazquez, an eighth grader who is president of the school’s Latinos in Action club, has seen a marked difference since his sixth-grade year. The simple change from pocket to backpack causes students to forget about their phones.

“Oh yeah, there’s fights and all that,” Daniel acknowledged. “But they (the teachers) have more control.”

In 2020-21, a tough adjustment year after the COVID-19 lockdown, administrators say there were 41 cases of students referred for transfers to alternative schools.

That number dropped to about 13 last year, when Vinueza started moving to restrict phone use. With this school year approaching its midway point, there have been two.

Vinueza and her team believe this year’s drop is related to students’ inability to use phones to indulge inappropriate behaviors; and that, without video, they cannot find an audience.

“Last year we had so many video recordings in the bathrooms,” Vinueza said. “I think we have had one this year.”

Principal Glenda Vinueza interacts and monitors students during lunch at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa.
Principal Glenda Vinueza interacts and monitors students during lunch at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Before the ban, about a dozen students would typically be milling around after the second bell between classes, so deeply focused on the screens that they lost track of time. During the recent Times visit, there was just one straggler.

Vinueza has been asked to report on the experiment to other principals. She’s hopeful that the school’s reputation will improve along with its state grade, now a C.

Holding up her own phone, she said, “I’m curious to know how much better some kids can do on any assessment, if this is taken away and they actually have to pay attention to what happens in class.”

Nadia Combs, a school board member whose district includes Webb, said she loves the policy. “It’s so nice, seeing kids being kids,” she said after a visit to the school.

“Old School Wednesday”

Cell phone restrictions are not unique to Webb. Walker Middle School doesn’t allow cell phone use unless it’s related to the classroom lesson.

The Walker ban has roots in a practice the school introduced five years ago called “Old School Wednesday.” On those days, students put their phones away during lunch and were given table games to play.

The results were so encouraging that the lunch policy grew to five days a week and, ultimately, all day.

The Hillsborough County School Board discussed phones during a summer workshop but could not agree on what to do with its current policy, which allows schools to decide.

The district put the question to staff and parents in two surveys this fall that generated nearly 10,000 responses.

A third of parents thought students should have free access to their phones, compared with only 3% of the teachers and administrators.

An all-day ban was supported by 16% of parents. Others cited safety concerns. One, in an anonymous response, wrote that their oldest child has post-traumatic stress disorder from ”three gun situations at school.”

Most of the teachers said they found phones disruptive. One described students with “music blaring in their ears as instruction is taking place.” Another said students form group chats so they can share answers that are photographed from “smart kids’” papers.

Yet 17% of the teachers said they require students to use cell phones for class assignments — a fact several parents pointed out.

Students take notes during class at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa.
Students take notes during class at Webb Middle School on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Speaking at a public forum recently, Pinellas Superintendent Kevin Hendrick said the biggest challenge in controlling phone use is in high school. “For some of the 16-year-olds, their connection to their phone is far stronger than their connection to the adult who’s asking them to put it away,” he said.

Browning, also a speaker at the forum, said he blames phone use for many of the mental health problems faced by students. Vinueza and Combs said they believe cell phone restrictions benefit mental health.

But several parents in the Hillsborough survey named mental health as a reason their children carry phones. One wrote that without a phone, “they are an outcast socially.”

Others listed specific circumstances, some described in their children’s individualized education plans. The examples included visual impairment; diabetes, which requires regular testing often aided by cell phones; and a sensitivity to noise that required noise-canceling ear buds.

Raucous but cheerful at lunch

The clearest evidence of the impact at Webb is lunchtime.

Students fill the cafeteria tables, raucous but mostly cheerful, chattering at peak volume.

Yanidis Vazquez said she doesn’t mind locking up her phone because “education is important to me, and my grades are important to me.”

Aniyalis Diaz, who sat across from Yanidis, said she sometimes needs to contact her mother but never has a problem doing so. Some of her teachers let her send a quick text. Others instruct her to use the phone in the front office, which is what school leaders prefer.

Overall, she said, students are paying far less attention to their phones. “Once it’s in the backpack, they just forget about it,” she said. “My friend used to be on her phone all last year. And now that they told her to put it away, she’s getting A’s and B’s.”

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Spotlight on education

The public is invited to a community conversation about the future of Florida public schools on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Tampa Theatre, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times. In the second installment of the Spotlight Tampa Bay series, Times journalists will moderate a discussion by experts, followed by a panel featuring students. Tickets are $20; $10 for students. Proceeds benefit the Times’ Journalism Fund. To purchase tickets, click here.