Cell phone and smartwatch ban in classrooms fails in committee

A student uses their phone while walking between classes at Cyprus High School in Magna on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

A student uses their phone while walking between classes at Cyprus High School in Magna on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023. A bill in the 2023 legislative session banning cellphones in classrooms has failed in committee .

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Concerns surrounding government overreach in Utah’s public schools doomed a bill to ban cellphone and smartwatch use in classrooms.

HB270 failed 9-3 on Wednesday after an hour of discussion and debate in the House Education Committee. Rep. Tyler Clancy, R-Provo, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, voted in favor of the bill. The remainder of the committee voted against it.

Rep. Trevor Lee’s bill would ban cellphone and smartwatch use in public school classrooms, requiring students to put them in a cubby or locker inside the classroom before the first bell.

A substitute to the bill proposed in the committee would have allowed teachers to implement their own policies, permitting students to use cellphones in class for educational purposes. Students could use cellphones for submitting assignments, active learning games like Kahoot and other educational measures under the legislation.

The Utah Legislature can protect students from the detrimental effects of cellphones and help their education, Lee, R-Layton, said.

In the committee hearing, members of the public and lawmakers raised concerns about government overreach, implementation and parents’ ability to contact their children

Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, described why she opposed the bill.

As a parent with five kids, she said, she constantly worries about the effects of cellphones on her kids, but “I take that responsibility.”

She said the bill would be the “heavy hand of government” in a way that is not necessary. 

“I would love to get behind a public information campaign. I’d love to educate people and kids,” Birkeland said. “I appreciate the work,” but this decision is one for teachers and administration to make.

Lee said government reaches into the education system on other issues and a cellphone ban would be no different.

“We have the ability to stop something that is significantly harming our children,” he said.

Despite Lee claiming teacher and principal support throughout the state for the bill, teachers, parents and principals at the meeting opposed it.

“We feel this is a local issue that can be decided at the (Local Education Agency) level, and we don’t need a top-down approach from the government,” said Chase Clyde, Utah Education Association government relations and political action director.

“Many districts already have cell phone policies,” he said. “Those policies are usually written by local authorities in collaboration with teachers and administrators on the ground.”

The policies, he said, might not be perfect, but were written and adjusted by those who actively face the cellphone issue.

A teacher and administrator from Cyprus High School, a school that recently implemented a similar policy to the bill, supported the legislation. The policies work, they said, and while there is an adjustment period, the bill supports teachers and administrators.

Rep. Katy Hall, R-Ogden, asked to hold the bill to allow Lee to make adjustments based on public comments. The motion failed 8-4. Clancy, Romero, Hall and Rep. Susan Pulsipher, R-South Jordan, voted to hold the bill, with the remainder voting against it.

Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, said, “I love what Cyprus did. ... There was an issue addressed ... the teachers brought forth the solution, and therefore created a policy.”

He said he wants to allow local teachers, parents and school boards to create their own policies and ideas to address issues that occur in their schools. The legislature, state or otherwise, should stay out of this one, Eliason said.

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