Education

A Minnesota principal banned cellphones from her school — and it worked

Boys stare at their smart phones in a school hallway
From left to right: Eighth graders Tommy Anderson, Brady Manous, Theo Kaufman, Gavin Cartony and Will Karch play games on their phones before classes start at St. Anthony Middle School in St. Anthony Village on May 23.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

St. Anthony Middle School principal Amy Kujawski once thought cellphones in schools were fine and that school leaders could teach students to navigate a tech-filled universe responsibly while letting them use their devices in the building. 

She no longer believes this. 

More kids and more phones became too much the past few years, setting off “power struggles” between students and teachers that grew exponentially at her school during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

She gathered a committee of staff, students and a psychologist last year to help think through what it might look like to introduce restrictions on kids’ devices. Then came another incident that sent her on a daylong scramble to deal with the fallout of online misbehavior. A new policy couldn’t wait for more discussion.

A woman wearing a white and blue polka dot top speaks
St. Anthony Middle School principal Amy Kujawski chats with administrators in the main office at St. Anthony Middle School in St. Anthony Village on May 23.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I just decided, ‘Nope. I don’t need any more input than the data I have in front of me,’” Kujawski recalled. “Phones in school is not a good thing. I’m done.”

She met with teachers, sent notes out to families and started requiring students to put their cellphones in their lockers from 8 a.m. until 2:45 p.m., after school ended. 

It worked. Cellphone-related behavioral referrals to the principal’s office have dropped to nearly zero in the months since the policy took hold. Despite some pushback, students have largely accepted the rules.

While Kujawski’s approach may not work everywhere, St. Anthony’s success with a simple ban might serve as a model as more schools face the issue. A new law passed last month with bipartisan support requires all Minnesota public schools to have a cellphone policy in place by next March.

“Smartphones were a giant distraction to learning,” she said. “And they were also interrupting our chances to build strong relationships with our students.” 

‘High schoolers are different’

There’s long been a sitcom-level frustration between adults and teens around cellphone use, but it’s become a more serious issue since the start of the pandemic in 2020. 

Youth cellphone use has increased at a faster rate since the start of the pandemic, according to research by nonprofit Common Sense Media. Last year the American Psychological Health Association issued a health advisory warning of the potential of psychological harm associated with youth social media use. 

A student puts a cell phone in a blue locker
Teddy Tharaldson puts his cellphone into his locker at St. Anthony Middle School in St. Anthony Village.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“The number of power struggles we were having in any given day over students and their cellphones — that put our teachers already in a place of just agitating the students,” Kujawski said. 

“It would impact just how they behaved in real time in school,” she added. “If it was the end of the class period, and their work was done, they would pick up their phones, and that’s where their faces and attention would be. When no one has their phones out, it allows for more real-time, face-to-face conversation.”

At one point last year, Kujawski had more than 30 behavior-related referrals associated with student cell-phone use on campus. Since banning phones a year ago, she’s only had one or two incidents arise. 

Trying a similar ban at the high school level might be more difficult. 

At Mankato East High School, students for the first time this school year had to put their phones away during class, but they were allowed to use them during lunch and passing times. 

“The high schoolers are different than middle schoolers,” said principal Akram Osman. “They’ve got more responsibilities. They’re likely working, and we just didn’t want to tackle all of that in the first year, that’s a huge change.”

That flexibility and consistent expectations around behavior has paid off.

“Some of the behaviors that led to students meeting up in a bathroom at a specific time to, to vape or to have an altercation or to do something that’s not (good) has significantly reduced,” Osman said. “Are we perfect? Absolutely not. Not yet. But it’s a big area. It’s a big, positive step to address in this nationwide challenge.”

A woman stands in a classroom
A poster reminding students of St. Anthony Middle School’s cellphone policy hangs outside Brynne Diggins’ eighth grade classroom.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Osman has tried the no-phones-in-class policy for a year. He has plans to convene a committee of parents and staff to figure out if they need to tweak the restrictions for this coming year.

“It’s a start for us to continue to innovate and to continue to engage our students, hear their voices, hear the staff voices … create classroom spaces that are less distracted and more engaged,” Osman said, adding that parents and caregivers have been supportive and see the level of distraction phones create. 

‘Up against a machine’

Kujawski said the families she’s talked to have been mostly supportive. Some are inconvenienced when they have to come pick their students’ phones up. But she insisted that it isn’t an issue when it comes to the types of emergency situations parents and students fear. 

“A few (parents) were concerned. This is 2024, we all know the headlines. ‘What happens if there’s a scary, unfortunate event at school? How will I be able to get hold of my kid?’ And luckily, through our school safety protocols, we have learned that even in those awful, awful, terrible situations, cellphones don’t help parents get in touch with their students,” Kujawski said, adding that her building’s emergency plans include protocols for parents to reach their children in emergencies to make sure they’re safe. 

Overall, Kujawski’s students are not fans of the change. There have been some student petitions to relax the ban, although several students who spoke with MPR News at the school recently said there seems to be a level of acceptance.

A student wears a white and blue hat
Eighth grader Teddy Tharaldson says St. Anthony Middle School’s cellphone policy helps keep students from getting distracted.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I think it’s good, because then kids pay attention more … and they’re not as distracted,” said eighth grader Teddy Tharaldson. “It’s easier because there’s not all this noise around you.”

Abigail Davis, another eighth grader, said not having access to her phone forces her to do more hands-on learning instead of relying on being able to check something quickly on Google or use AI to help her out. 

“Honestly, the policy in my opinion is OK,” Abigail said. “I mean, it’s not like the best, because I like having my phone when we used to have it in class, but at the same time, it’s kind of making us more productive.”

A Black girl with braided hair speaks
St. Anthony Middle School eighth grader Abigail Davis says not having access to her phone forces her to do more hands-on learning.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Notably, the cellphone ban has helped accomplish what Kujawski once thought would happen without a ban — adults at St. Anthony Middle School are finding it easier to help kids navigate a sometimes-toxic environment around technology.

“Because of our policy, we are able to have more conversations with them where we say, ‘Remember why we feel strongly about this. There is some research that the way in which adolescents go about engaging with this technology is not healthy for you,’” she said. 

Teens, she added, can’t do it alone. “They don’t know that these social media companies are preying on where they are developmentally … What I learned is that they just can’t. They are up against a machine.”

Girls practice a dance next to their lockers
Eight grade students Makayla Kilby (center) and Elsa Dungan-Hawks (right) practice a TikTok dance before classes at St. Anthony Middle School in St. Anthony Village.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
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