No Phones Allowed

The story behind Garfield’s new cell phone policy.


Art by Sophia Chrysanthakopoulos

On February 25th, 2019, Garfield High School launched an unprecedented crackdown on student cell phone use.

Though a cell phone ban has technically been on the books for years, Garfield administration made the decision to step up enforcement by conducting spot-checks in classrooms and in hallways. This new style of enforcement has sparked high emotions and revealed fissures between Garfield administrators, teachers, and students.

Junior Jade Peterson was one of the first targets of the crackdown.

“Mr. Howard was walking in the opposite direction. He took my phone, he didn’t give me a verbal warning or anything,” Peterson said. “I feel violated. I want this policy to change.”

Peterson, like dozens of other Garfield students who have had their phones seized by administration, complains that these sudden confiscations are stressful and unnecessary.

Despite these objections, however, Garfield Principal Theodore Howard II believes that a strictly enforced cell phone ban is necessary to combat unhealthy smartphone addiction.

“The first thing I ask students coming in to Garfield [for the first time] is ‘How many minutes are you on your phone?’” Howard said. “They go and they look, and they say ‘four hours already today.’ And I think, wow, maybe that’s contributing to them not getting where they should be academically.”

Howard believes that much of this addiction problem stems from the design of popular smartphone apps.

“A lot of places students go [on their phones] use the algorithm of a casino,” Howard said. “They get students hooked, and then students have to keep getting on their phones, and they can’t put them down.”

In his visits to Garfield classrooms, Howard has noticed that cell phones have robbed students of the ability to focus deeply on a single task — a skill that Howard believes to be essential to learning.

“I watch students multitask five different things at once [on their phones], and they tell me that they’re doing a really good job,” Howard said.  “But when I ask them a thoughtful question or a critical question and have them go further, they struggle with that.”

This observation prompted Howard to mandate an electronics ban in every Garfield class. Cell phones, laptops, and all other electronics are completely prohibited.

In a controversial step, Howard insisted that the ban must include Advisory. Many faculty members have protested the Advisory electronics ban, arguing that the class was meant to give students a time to study and relax between academic classes. But Howard has stood firm in his position.

“Teachers are saying that Advisory is supposed to be downtime for the students,” Howard said. “Well, if it’s downtime, why are we giving you 0.5 credit for it? What standard is that?”

The conflict over Advisory, among other issues, has thrown many teachers into open revolt against the new cell phone policy. In a direct contradiction to administration’s instructions, some teachers have told students that they would turn a blind eye when cell phones are used for academic purposes. Howard has found this lack of cooperation somewhat frustrating.

“It’s still happening where some teachers enforce policy, and some teachers don’t,” Howard said. “That, to me, falls to integrity around if you’re going to do your job or not. If you’re not going to do your job because you don’t believe in certain rules… how does that work?”

Howard’s attitude towards the cell phone ban has polarized the Garfield faculty. Several opponents of the new policy refused to be interviewed for this article. Calculus teacher Jack Waterman expressed concern about the speed of the rollout, claiming that teachers were given “zero notice” before Mr. Howard announced the new policy at the February 15th assembly.

“We were told there was going to be an assembly, but we were not told what it was about,” Waterman said. “I think officially that was the first time any of us received word.”

Waterman runs a flipped classroom. Rather than delivering lectures during class time, he assigns custom-made online videos for his students to watch as homework. Because these videos serve as useful reference material, Waterman believes that in-class smartphone use can actually help students become better at math.

“It’s a huge help because it gives them the ability to watch a lesson in class,” Waterman said. “The benefit to having a video is that you can watch it several times. Having that near you while you’re doing work is almost like having me teach you the lesson as you work.”

Not all teachers share Waterman’s enthusiasm towards technology in the classroom. Spanish teacher Katie Hathaway, who has always prohibited cell phones in her classes, approves of the new enforcement policy.

“I think it’s great that admin is taking a stand against it,” Hathaway said. “I think that in certain classes it’s really been necessary, and I’ve actually noticed more engagement. Kids are talking to each other when they would normally be on their phones.”

In addition to preventing students from conversing in Spanish, Hathaway sees cell phones as the source of an instant-gratification culture that can get in the way of certain types of learning.

“Because we get so much information so fast—our brains are used to scrolling through Instagram—kids want everything to be entertaining and fun,” Hathaway said. “Sometimes you have to give information that’s a little dry.”

Though she supports the ban, Hathaway acknowledges that the implementation could have been smoother.

“The problem we’ve had—kind of like the dress code policy last year—is that rollout has not been the best,” Hathaway said. “At the same time, it’s happening, so I can’t be angry with it.”

In the end, Howard hopes that the electronics ban will teach students to responsibly regulate their own cell phone use.

“Where I’m at is: let’s educate you about it,” Howard said. “After we educate you, hopefully you’re not so dependent on pulling out your phone or looking at Kahoot. Your phone’s a great tool, at certain times, but we shouldn’t be so dependent on them.”