Cutting the cord
Mountain Middle School creates 'safe zone' with cell phone ban

Cutting the cord

Mountain Middle School Head of School Shane Voss stands inside the school recently. Seven years ago, the school banned cell phones as a way to combat student anxiety, stress and depression. Today, school officials report students are more relaxed, focused and interact more face to face ./ Photo by Chris Neal/Shooter Imaging

Jenny Brundin Colorado Public Radio - 11/21/2019

(Editor’s note: The following is part of CPR’s “Teens Under Stress” series, an investigation into the factors that have created the ultimate pressure cooker for youth. The series takes a look into the world of teens through audio diaries, interviews, reflection and analysis. Most importantly, it examines what teens, families and schools can do to alleviate some of that pressure.)

Teachers at Mountain Middle School knew they had to do something. La Plata County had one of the highest teen suicide rates in Colorado and the school wanted to be a truly safe space.

One of the first things that came to mind – a cell phone ban. So, seven years ago, that’s what they did.

Head of School Shane Voss cites 24-hour cyberbullying, loss of sleep, round-the-clock social pressure to respond to Snapchats, Instagram posts and texts, and constantly comparing oneself to other students. Voss and other school staff say cell phones play an underestimated role in the current teen mental health crisis.

Eighth-graders Grace and Henry don’t know what school is like with phones. Henry is on his phone about 10 minutes before he walks into school and then it’s off.

He said for the first half hour his phone might be in the back of his mind, “but once class starts then it’s just ‘kinda out the window and I’m not really thinking about it.”

When school’s out, he doesn’t really think about it either because he hasn’t seen in for the past six or seven hours. Grace doesn’t think about her phone at all during the day except toward the end, “thinking about like, did my mom send me a text to say where I’m going after school or something like that.”

The rules are simple: phones are to be in backpacks during the day. In 2016, the school tweaked the rule to say that phones must be in backpacks before students enter the building. There’s a warning the first  time a phone is out. On the second infraction, the phone is confiscated and parents have to pick it up. The third time, a student must hand the phone into the office at the beginning of the school day and pick it up at the end, for a set period of time.

“What we’ve tried to do at our school is create a safe zone,” Voss said, “the eight hours of a school day when students don’t have to worry about that added extra pressure.”

Before the policy was implemented, kids would come into the school, pull out their phones and look at Snapchat or Instagram as they waited for class to start.

“It was kind of eerie that they were all sitting next to each other but not talking to each other,” recalls Voss. “And now that 15-minute time as they’re waiting for class, students are ... talking to teachers and they’re talking to each other.”

If parents have an emergency and need to reach their children, they can call the front office and every classroom has a phone. “But (parents) should not be texting their student during the school day and distracting them,” Voss said.

Voss said parents needed to be educated about the impacts of cell phones on the adolescent brain. Some studies point to a correlation between high social media use and anxiety and depression. The school invited parents throughout Durango to attend a screening of the documentary “Screenagers,” which explores the impact of screens on kids’ brains. A second event featured a showing of “Angst,” which documents heightened levels of anxiety in today’s youth.

Parents, however, can also be part of the problem. Cell phone behavior is learned, Voss said. So the community discussions emphasized the importance of not using the cell phone while driving or during family dinners or when talking with children.

“Parents need to model appropriate usage,” he said. “We’re getting our kids ready for the world of work and you’re present, you’re focused, you’re not checked out and you’re not on social media when you’re in a business meeting.”

Voss said when he walks into a school without a cell phone ban, the difference is palpable. Students are walking around with their heads down, on their phones.

“It’s kind of like the zombie apocalypse and you have all these kids in the hallways not talking to each other. It’s just a very different vibe.”

The school tries to teach the skill of being “indistractible,” focusing students on one skill, one concept or one conversation at a time. It’s not an easy task when many students attempt to do homework, listen to music, text and keep an eye on Netflix at the same time. Voss credits the cell phone-free environment as a significant factor in the school’s upward trajectory. In the school’s first two years, it struggled academically. But for the past several years it has attained Colorado’s highest performance rating.

In addition, in advisories (homerooms), students learn social and emotional skills, dive into the symptoms of anxiety and learn coping skills. Police officers talk to the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders about the legal ramifications of using cell phones improperly.

Voss believes schools should be teaching students how to use technology appropriately and teach them that it can play a role in teen anxiety and depression. “I do think the cell phone piece is a big part of why students don’t know how to communicate well face to face,” he said,

Ninety-five percent of teens have access to a smartphone, and many Colorado school officials say it’s impossible to monitor them. Voss counts off the excuses he’s heard for why schools can’t implement bans. One is that there aren’t enough Chromebooks for each student, so teachers rely on phones for internet access. Voss believes that technology needs to be prioritized in the budget so classrooms don’t have to rely on phones. He also believes administrators fear parent and student push-back. “It’s kind of like a digital umbilical cord for parents and students,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many schools I visit and they say, ‘Man, I wish we could do that, but we don’t have the courage.’”

But Voss believes the current mental health crisis among youth means schools need to think hard about what’s best for kids. “Let’s remove all the excuses because we know this is what’s best for kids. We’re going to have fewer kids facing depression and anxiety. The mental health piece of this is huge and that can’t be ignored.”

Henry said kids do complain about the ban. Most of the complaining is at the beginning of the year, he said – kids are coming off a summer gorge-fest.

“Everybody said like, ‘Oh, I really, really wish I can be on my phone.’ But I think subconsciously everybody realized that it’s good for them, but like nobody really realizes it. Nobody thinks, ‘Wow, this is nice. I don’t have to worry about this for seven hours.’ And that’s one of the nice things is people may think it’s a burden or it’s like a punishment, but it’s really there to help you be the best person you can be.”

This story was edited for length. To read it in its entirety, go to www.cpr.org.


Cutting the cord

A student puts her phone in her backpack before school. Kids are required to have phones put away before entering the building. Parents can get in touch with them by calling the front office./ Photo by Chris Neal/Shooter Imaging