No phone zone | September 27, 2019 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 27, 2019

No phone zone

Educators, parents, youth debate how to handle students' 'distracting' access to cellphones in schools

by Elena Kadvany

Every year on the first day of school, longtime Gunn High School teacher Josh Paley throws his cellphone against the wall.

This story contains 2588 words.

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Staff Writer Elena Kadvany can be emailed at


18 people like this
Posted by Michael O.
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 27, 2019 at 7:12 am

Great piece, Elena. Yes, that’s my comment. i hope this gets you a job at a big paper.

17 people like this
Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 27, 2019 at 7:32 am

Samuel L. is a registered user.

Neither PAUSD principal not the Superintendent even bothered to respond to requests for a comment. We're they checking with the lawyers to have the lawyers tell them what to say?

In anothern paper's article on San Mateo using the Yondr pouches, Don Austin said PAUSD has no interest in a similar program.

Dauber's a broken record, it's all about workload. Guess he can't see the link between phone use and stress and lack of sleep.

4 people like this
Posted by Shawn
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 27, 2019 at 8:27 am

I agree with the previous comment about the article. Well done. You are in a class of your own.

9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 8:29 am

There are many different ways of looking at this. I think correct etiquette for phone usage is not a constant across society and this is the big problem. Of course a student in a classroom should not be texting or using a phone inappropriately but instead of taking away a phone from them they should be accepted and used within sensible guidelines.

Many people have their phones as such a part of them that not having the comfort of having it on their person will give them separation anxiety, think taking away a blankie or stuffed toy from a toddler. The anxiety felt could in fact make it harder for a student to concentrate.

Many people, parents included, feel that in the case of an emergency the ability to text a message to loved ones is very important. In say a big earthquake, the fact that those phones in pouches are going to be the first thing everyone tries to get before doing anything else. The rush to get phones and the confusion of getting the right phone could be a dangerous activity.

Additionally, students will be one step ahead. They will easily carry a spare phone to put in the pouch and the real phone will still be in a pocket. Are teachers going to be able to make sure that these are anything other than a dummy carried specifically for keeping the teacher's rules.

I would much prefer a rule that states that all phones are silenced and kept out of sight. Anyone discovered using a phone during class should suffer some type of disciplinary action.

5 people like this
Posted by Amanda Kelso
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 27, 2019 at 9:52 am

Excellent in-depth work by Elena Kadvany and I'm very glad to see this kind of great local news coverage supported.

18 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 10:09 am

I like to avoid discussing my personal info on here, but, I do know a lot about how phones are used and the pressures that students are under to use them for legitimate purposes all day, as well as the dumb stuff (snapchat ad nauseum). Students are expected to schedule themselves with a different schedule every day. The schedule changes so often that half the students don't know what the schedule is on any given day. Adults schedules often change every day, too. I use my cell phone to keep it under control-- I'm not surprised they do also. Students typically have doctors appts during the day. Got to coordinate with mom/dad getting picked up to go to the clinic? Cell phone. Student sports or other activities after school? Got to coordinate using cell phones.

Want to fix this? Go back to a fixed daily schedule with two options: regular, and, early-out. Get more buses and bus to all school-sponsored after-school events including all sports. Bus more students to school instead of the huge number of parent pick-up/drop-off traffic jam we have today. Work with PAMF to encourage more doctor visits in the late afternoons instead of during school hours.

We could do these things. Or, we could stop playing "ain't it awful" and just let them use their cell phones like adults do.

12 people like this
Posted by Cover up culture
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 27, 2019 at 11:03 am

@Anon - good points, but buses to school activities will never again happen as the teachers' union continues to suck out any extraneous money from the school system that they can while forcing parents to pick up the slack and even ask them to donate for class supplies and things they've already paid for anyway via taxes.

17 people like this
Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 27, 2019 at 11:31 am

What Will They Do Next is a registered user.

@ Resident......"Many people have their phones as such a part of them that not having the comfort of having it on their person will give them separation anxiety, think taking away a blankie or stuffed toy from a toddler. The anxiety felt could in fact make it harder for a student to concentrate."

You made some very valid points, but lost me on this one. Pretty soon they'll come up with the category of "emotional support phone" for the snowflakes and legislation will need to be passed for the children to make it through the day untraumatized. Sheesh.

10 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 11:36 am

Posted by What Will They Do Next, a resident of Old Palo Alto

>> "emotional support phone"

Maybe you can copyright that.

Anyway, thank you. Your post made me feel happier.

14 people like this
Posted by a Gunn parent
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2019 at 12:16 pm

We have struggled with screen use at home and were exasperated when our older child was given a Chromebook at freshman orientation. A couple years later, here are some thoughts:

Kudos to the teachers who have clear and firm policies. My kids are most annoyed with teachers who have flimsy policies or allow distracting screen use in classes such as watching videos, listening to music, gaming, etc. That harms everyone's learning and should never be tolerated.

Hopefully by now adults agree that phones ARE distracting AND that teens cannot multitask. At the same time, people unfamiliar with local high schools should know that high schoolers are in an environment where they heavily rely on their phones to know which class they need to be in, access Schoology, club meeting info, sports carpool info, jobs, etc. It is a big sprawling campus and they all have a LOT on their plates.

School leadership is probably unwilling to take a stand because they would be skewered by people on all sides. Families have different policies. Kids have different levels of self control.

What about a campaign to get students to put their phones down during passing, lunch, brunch, etc. High school can be an awkward, lonely time for some and this can be made worse (or better for some) when everyone has eyes on a screen. When people (not just students) hide in their phones they miss out on making personal connections and getting to know others outside their circle. The school could set aside certain days and class leadership could promote screen-free lunch or whatever. This really goes for everywhere - including coffee shops full of adults. Just a thought.

26 people like this
Posted by Parent of 2
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 27, 2019 at 12:23 pm

The idea that kids "need" phones - for emotional support, to navigate the campus, to figure out what class to be in - is ridiculous. Everyone did fine with out them as recently as 10-15 years ago, as do many kids today (esp. lower income students). If they are really "needed" the school should supply them - otherwise, they are not needed.

By not having a school-wide policy, the school puts the burden on individual teachers to manage and police. This is unreasonable, especially for less experienced or control-oriented teachers, who probably need the support the most.

I haven't seen any argument that "having phones improves students' education" - isn't that the whole point of schools? If they are detrimental, they should look at school-wide controls, as others have. As so often happens, while Palo Alto rationalizes, others take action.

10 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 12:28 pm

Posted by Parent of 2, a resident of Community Center

>> The idea that kids "need" phones - fto figure out what class to be in - is ridiculous. Everyone did fine with out them as recently as 10-15 years ago,

I guess you aren't familiar with the new "block" schedules, along with their multiple alternate schedules that depend on what kind of a short day it is.

8 people like this
Posted by Common sense
a resident of another community
on Sep 27, 2019 at 12:46 pm

Common sense is a registered user.

Some years ago in Japan, when obnoxious cell-phone use in restaurants became a phenomenon, commercial short-range cell-phone JAMMER products appeared as a countermeasure. Got a lot of publicity at the time, mostly ignored by US pop culture (characteristically, Japan's experience has been completely overlooked in the related Wikipedia article, where it would be centrally relevant: Web Link ).

In principle, since smart phones use the same mobile-radio channels, that might seem one overarching (and already-available) solution for classrooms, if kids fail to cooperate, or cheat, on policies (especially in exams). But unlike in some countries, it is illegal per US radio laws (deliberate service interference has been illegal since the 1930s).

19 people like this
Posted by Parent of 2
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 27, 2019 at 12:47 pm

@Anon, yes I'm familiar (parent of 2 high schoolers). Kids do not need hand-held computers to know what class they have. If they need to look it up, they can do it before school and jot it down - one of the good things about block scheduling is that you don't have as many classes in a day.

Since other schools are already doing this, it seems easy enough to address these logistical questions. My wonder is why nobody from the schools has bothered.

22 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 27, 2019 at 1:04 pm

Cellphones should not be available during class instruction time.
I had block scheduling years ago at Gunn and a one page printout provided to students at start of school year sufficed for everyone to know a particular day’s schedule.
If as stated above by a poster, some students would bring a “dummy” phone to place in a school storage device while keeping a second “real” phone to continue use during class - wow, I have no respect for you. Self control, self management, ability to do the correct thing - these are part of showing one’s character.
Cellphones are not necessary and impede everyone’s classroom experience.

26 people like this
Posted by cmarg
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 27, 2019 at 1:48 pm

cmarg is a registered user.

First, thanks for a great article.
Personally, I would love it if every teacher had a cell phone caddy in their class like Josh Paley. It does take some training of the students to do this every day and an extra amount of rigor for the teacher to monitor phone usage.

BUT, I must say that what I as a parent, and likely many of you out there need to do is:
1) do not text or call our children during the school hours
2) put our own cell phones away especially during family times like meals
3) put our own cell phones away when working at home and the children are home unless on a phone call.

We need to lead by example and teach our children good habits for cell phone usage. We are using a cell charging box at our front door. We try to leave it there when we get home. It is a very hard habit to break and even harder for young kids given, as adults, we are challenged.

I hope we can all try and also do whatever we can to continue to encourage each other to limit our cell phone usage. We can as a community of adults work together to show good examples to kids.

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 27, 2019 at 1:48 pm

The idea that cell phones are emotional support is of course amusing, but at the same time the loss of such would cause great anxiety.

I myself, if I forget to take my phone with me, or lose it, feel almost naked. The phone itself is more than just a communication tool but it is a lifeline in an emergency and contains all the information I could possibly need that day. Phones nowadays have schedules and calendars, reminders, shopping lists, time and alarm reminders, homework and tests info, contact info, some are used instead of keys for cars and houses, entry into gyms, libraries, buildings, and the list goes on. Taking away a phone, even for a short period of time, can be a serious feeling to overcome.

25 people like this
Posted by I am all for a ban
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 27, 2019 at 6:35 pm

I am all for a ban is a registered user.

No one needs a phone during school. My kid doesn't have a smartphone and navigates the high school schedule just fine. If she is sick, or I need to reach her, we use the office's phone.

Phones reduce opportunities for kids to engage with each other, in class and in between classes. Those skills are CRITICAL in this world that they are going to live in, and they are not developing them. Worse, they are not making the friendships and building their communities that will sustain them in high school and last throughout their lives if they are lucky.

It is not enough to remove phones in class, though that is a no-brainer. We need to remove them throughout the school day. I would love to join this effort to ban phones during the school day.

11 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Sep 27, 2019 at 7:38 pm

Smartphones are often used for cheating during exams. Some kids are pretty good ar hiding their phones while texting to get the answer to question # __. Lots of texting goes on during movies in the classroom.

Do we even want to address the phone pics that get posted on social media, some of which is bullying or fat shaming in locker rooms?

If there is an emergency on campus, the last thing that will be helpful is having kids divng for their phones instead of following safety instructions or wasting time answering calls from panicky parents, usually 2 parents per kid.

I think if a teacher says no phone use in class, that offenders should have their phones confiscated until the end of the week.

11 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 28, 2019 at 6:28 pm

Interesting, but why isn't PA Weekly investigating why, for a second time in less than a decade, PAUSD has been caught disproportionately designating minorities as special education? Do they really have a disability? Is PAUSD trying to designate them as special ed so their scores won't knock down PAUSD's academic rating? What is going on here? Cellphones, yeah, but what about spending time investigating that?

8 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 28, 2019 at 10:56 pm

Or why not investigate how the district, while holding families and their students hostage, extracts a quid pro quo from them, getting them to release all potential claims against pausd and to keep silent, in exchange for providing their students the education pausd is supposed to provide anyway. NDA anyone?

7 people like this
Posted by ALB
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 1, 2019 at 1:18 pm

ALB is a registered user.

I taught ESL for over fifteen years and my students were wealthy people from Africa, China, France, Colombia, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico and several other countries. The average age was sixteen through twenty. I did have some professionals in their thirties and forties as well. The younger students had difficulty with the rule to have cell phones turned off and put away. Most students followed the rule but once in awhile I had to take the cellphone away from the young person and keep it on my desk until class ended. Cell phones are huge distractions and are unfair to the other students who want to learn. The prefrontal cortex is not developed until the age of twenty five so teenagers who most think are immortal anyway do not have great executive function. They need to comply with the rule: cellphones need to be turned off and probably given to the teacher at the beginning of class. Some appropriate solution needs to be implemented. Because he is our local icon just look at what Steve Jobs permitted with his kids regarding screen time.

6 people like this
Posted by Mom of Paly student
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 2, 2019 at 5:39 pm

ALB, what does this mean? No facts here in your posting, you cannot assume we know: "Because he is our local icon just look at what Steve Jobs permitted with his kids regarding screen time."

Everyone is hopelessly addicted to their cell phones and computers these days, adults included. Schools should create and enforce a no-cell phone rule in classes. Between classes, brunch and lunch, let them get their fixes, but during class, it's too distracting to their learning. Although, admittedly, I have texted urgent things to my son during class and he fortunately answered.

7 people like this
Posted by It's not complicated
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 2, 2019 at 11:47 pm

Any school with a spine will ban cell phones. The idea that we need to "teach kids to use them responsibly" is bananas - should we do the same thing with guns, booze, drugs, and vaping? These devices/apps are, for some students, addicting and deleterious - why would a quality educational institution allow them during school hours? Schools exist to promote learning and personal well-being; these devices don't contribute and for some actively detract; so don't allow them. It's not complicated.

4 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 3, 2019 at 12:33 pm

Posted by Mom of Paly student, a resident of Palo Alto High School

>> Although, admittedly, I have texted urgent things to my son during class and he fortunately answered.


1 person likes this
Posted by Solution looking for a problem?
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 4, 2019 at 10:26 am

From the teacher interviews it appears that teachers are already managing cell phones in their classrooms. If teachers were complaining about the existing cell phone policies which seem to provide a solution that would be different but this sounds like it is coming from parents who aren't in the classrooms.
I also agree with Trustee Dauber that the bigger issues are homework and starting times. Numerous studies show that overworked and tired brains do not learn. The homework policy was adopted in 2012 and has yet to be implemented across the district. We've made progress on start times but any parent of a teen knows that we can do better on that account.
Here is an excerpt of the homework policy with regards to high school students.
"While many high school classes serve students across several grade levels, students in their freshman year may reasonably expect average home work loads closer to seven hours a week. Similarly, seniors can expect loads closer to ten hours per week.
Students who choose to enroll in Advanced Placement, Honors or accelerated courses should expect loads higher than those outlined above and should refer to class catalogs for homework expectations.
Students who chose to enroll in Advanced Placements, Honors, or accelerated courses should expect higher homework loads, but not to exceed an average of 15 hours per week."

If your child is experiencing higher levels teachers are required to modify their assignments per paragraph 5 of the teacher guidelines:
"Differentiate assignments when it is determined that, despite appropriate effort and learning habits, a student is spending more than the expected time on homework."
Go to the source document to read about the qualitative requirements for homework. See Web Link
I love the policy but clearly more work is needed to divide the homework pie among classes in high school. Are we collecting student data? Does each class get an equal amount of homework pie? Is this something the high school staff can take a stab at?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 4, 2019 at 1:36 pm

I think we have gone beyond the stage of banning phones. Apart from the fact that to some they might be distractions and possibly lead to cheating, there is the real fact that many teachers are using them as teaching tools. From taking pictures of various things, telling the students to video the explanation part of a lesson so that they can watch it again to help understand the procedure, to putting parts of the lessons online, the teachers are using technology in the classroom.

It is important I think to teach more about phone use etiquette. Parents who text a student should not expect an immediate response but expect to receive a reply in passing period. Students do use their phones for calendars, schedules, reminder alarms, homework and test planning, and all the other tools that are common place. They are buying their lunch, buying homework supplies, using phones as payment, and probably ahead of most of us with apps to do all sorts of things that their generation use and we have never heard of.

Most teachers that I have heard of are adapting to phones in the classroom. They have rules and these rules seem to be working. Are any of them complaining there is a problem?

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 4, 2019 at 3:15 pm

1 - not all students have phones, so urging kids to use them in the classroom is unfair unless they are supplied to all students like textbooks

2 - taking pictures or videoing instead of taking written notes is shown to develop less comprehension and retention. This is now you dumb down a school, tell kids to just take pictures of things.

3 - an equally big problem is OUTSIDE of class, when kids should be interacting with each other and adults on campus. Instead, many have their noses in their phones. We talk about soft-skills, problem solving, group dynamics, emotional intelligence - how do you develop these with a smart phone? Is there an app for that??

The rate of anxiety and depression among teenagers has risen dramatically (see Web Link, or just google it), tied to rise of social media. This is as much a public health problem as vaping, cigarettes, or other things we outright ban in schools as a matter of common sense.

Again, while others act, Palo Alto rationalizes.

4 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 4, 2019 at 9:32 pm

Being hunched over your phone, walking along w/o eye contact with others - what a way to live. Most apps, games are crap anyway. Gossip is damaging. Communication, Photos ok up to a point....then very bad.
Better to engage with others during your youth. Paying attention to your teacher in class will pay off, too!

2 people like this
Posted by Member
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 5, 2019 at 3:43 am

This is the generation that had parents on phones obsessively while their children grew up especially in this area where every parent has the newest phone and always has it in their hands, even at playgrounds, concerts, beaches.... what do they expect kids to do. The teachers often leave the kids for work time and they are jus staring at screens instead of any collaberation.

why not just send them to a virtual school with all online classes?

Teachers send online work home that is meaningless or just a test that is computer graded and then the kids are on the computer again anyway. Using the computer for low level worksheets and then saying it is tech has gotten old and stupid and of course they will try to entertain themselves to escape the boredom of Kahn academy videos and such sent home or that they have to watch because the teacher told them they have to teach themselves. Teachers could never sit at computers alone in class when they could be checking for understanding in person with a conversation or a look at actual work. Oh wait, that would require leadership. Most teachers at Paly are wonderful and do this, but some are very naive about what kids a re doing on phones and computers during class. In college, they should not be on phones and not being present is a bad habit that will follow them as adults and parents.

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