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Student phone limit clears Senate

A statewide push to limit smartphone use in schools cleared another hurdle in Harrisburg last week as the Senate passed a bill 45-5 to establish a lockable bag pilot program.

The program would award grants to participating schools to purchase secure, lockable smartphone bags in which students would deposit their mobile devices until the end of the school day. The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Ryan Aument, would then require participating schools to track certain metrics like academic performance, mental health, and instances of bullying and other behavioral issues to study the impact of a smartphone-free school on students.

“Kids spend so much time on social media and using their smartphones that it’s taking a toll on them mentally, emotionally, and academically,” Aument said. “Smartphone restrictions have proved successful in reversing these trends. Students deserve to learn without a constant distraction in their pockets, and my legislation would give them that.”

No local senators voted against the bill last week’s vote in Harrisburg.

“Students are facing a significant decline in academic achievement and the data shows a clear correlation between these trends and the rise in cellphone use,” state Sen. Dave Argall said.

Last month, Lehighton Area School District directors discussed adopting thier own policy on student cellphone restrictions during the school day. At a June 10 workshop, the district provided a Reading School District policy prohibiting the use of nonacademic electronic devices while school is in session as an example of something it could look to implement.

“If we inform parents this is coming, they may start to police their children in the same way some of us do and they may take an active role in their students’ lives to make sure they aren’t walking around with it all the time,” Jeremy Glaush, board president, said during the workshop.

High School Principal Sue Howland said each Lehighton classroom does have pockets where students can put their phones for that particular period, but enforcement of that is up to individual staff members.

Tamaqua Area School District is in the process of revising its policy to limit cellphone use to lunch periods only.

Since the early 2010s, Aument said, there has been a steep decline in mental health in children, and their academic performance is suffering.

“Last year alone, the commonwealth provided $100 million in new funding to schools to care for their students’ mental health,” he added. “While we continue to provide resources to help students in need of mental health services, we must also target one of the root causes of our children’s mental distress: widespread access to smartphones and social media apps.”

Senate Bill 1207 would also require schools participating in the program to include exemptions in their smartphone use policy for students who have a documented medical condition, such as diabetes, that requires the use of a smartphone.

The bill now moves to the House of Representatives for consideration.