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Aspen School District looking to curb smartphone problem

Aspen School District Superintendent Dave Baugh addresses parents, students, and administrators at a cell phone town hall Thursday, March 7.
Lucy Peterson/The Aspen Times

Aspen School District leaders, parents, and students debated how to mitigate excessive cell phone use during the school day at a cell phone town hall Thursday, March 7.

The town hall, hosted by the school district, was in response to a district-wide survey of parents, students, and teachers about the phone policies in schools. Superintendent Dave Baugh presented the survey results, and discussed options the district is considering adopting to curb cell phone use in schools, something he said has often derailed instruction time and forced teachers and administrators to become managers in the classroom rather than educators.

Cell phones and social media are also exacerbating a cyberbullying problem in the school district, Baugh said, which can affect students’ mental health. Last May, the Aspen School District joined districts across the country in suing several social media companies over the effect they can have on the mental health of students. The district is suing the parent companies of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, Google, and Youtube.

“Nationally and internationally, we’re seeing a move towards removing smartphones from schools,” Baugh said. “We keep going back to smartphones as being at the root of the problem, mental and physical health issues, social media problems, classroom distractions.”

A clear solution to excessive cell phone use was not reached during the town hall, but debate from parents, students, and school principals guided the district on a potential path forward. 

Aspen School District Superintendent Dave Baugh discusses current school procedures to address smartphone use at a cell phone town hall Thursday, March 7.
Lucy Peterson/The Aspen Times

According to the district’s survey from December, which more than 1,170 people responded to, 89% of respondents said they believe cell phones distract students. A survey of students conducted by Aspen High School’s student senate found that 95% of students said cell phones do not distract them from school work during class.

But Baugh and other administrators said cell phone use in classrooms has frequently interrupted class time while teachers discipline students who have their phone out.

It’s a problem without a clear solution for students whose whole lives are on their phones, Aspen High School Principal Sarah Strassburger said.

“Can we do a better job of enforcing, we can, but for that to take up the bulk of our day is not why we’re here,” she said. “We’re in the business of teaching and learning and so, yes we need to have more teachers comply, but we also need to realize that the addiction is real.”

“I don’t think there’s an easy answer. I want to empathize with our kids, this is their world, but it might be that point where we say, ‘How do we create an environment where kids talk to each other and enjoy that conversation?’” she added.

There isn’t a district-wide cell phone policy. Instead, each school has its own process of addressing cell phone use. 

Some teachers have cell phone pockets, where students drop their phones during class. But teachers are increasingly seeing students bring burner phones to class, so it looks like they are dropping their phone off at the start of class, but they still have access to their actual smartphone, Strassburger said.

One of the solutions the district is considering is adopting a district-wide phone policy to replace school-specific procedures, like banning phones on campus during school hours. The district is also considering using technology like Yondr pouches, which lock cell phones in a pouch that can only be unlocked by teachers and administrators.

But several students in attendance at the town hall said banning phones was not the solution. Students use their phones in class to take photos or videos for assignments, upload schoolwork, check their class schedule, and communicate with sports coaches, they said. And like the burner phones, many students would be able to find a way around a phone ban.

Aspen School District Superintendent Dave Baugh demonstrates a Yondr phone pouch that locks students phones. It is one option the district is considering using to curb smartphone use during the school day.
Lucy Peterson/The Aspen Times

“A modern problem will require a modern solution, and I do not believe that includes entirely taking away phones” said senior Brooke O’Sullivan. 

Students are often texting their parents during the school day, Baugh said. During the swatting incident in 2023, students texting their parents and other students caused widespread misinformation, he added.

“The cell phones aren’t going to get you good information coming out of the schools unless it’s coming from an official platform, like Pitkin Alerts or from the school district,” Baugh said. “In a true emergency situation, the cell phones are the first things to start failing.”

But the power cell phones and social media have in derailing a student’s day is enormous, Strassburger said. 

Parents and educators at the town hall frequently pointed to experiential education, where students are participating in days-long outdoor activities where phones are not allowed. The students often reflect that it’s one of the best weeks of the year, parents said. 

“One unkind text, one unkind Snap(chat)… what that does is that derails that student’s entire day,” Strassburger said. “It’s their inability to access learning because someone has said something cruel or unkind.”

“It’s not that you ever want to take kids away from having access to something, and we’re not saying eliminate technology. What we’re saying is the cell phone and that social media piece is really so disruptive and so distracting to students… I’m not saying we have to ban them, but I am saying it might be really freeing and lovely to not have to worry about that cell phone,” she added.

It is unclear how the district will move forward in tackling the cell phone issue, but several ideas floated at the town hall may help, Baugh said. O’Sullivan suggested forming a committee of stakeholders to discuss a potential district policy, something Baugh said could be created before the end of the school year.

The district is asking parents and students to complete a survey about some of the solutions posed at the town hall.

“We really don’t want our staff members having to chase cell phones,” Baugh said. “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if things were coming up roses… but I think it’s really important that this be a positive conversation about what would be gained if we try something different.”


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