South Carolina Budget to Ban Cellphones in K-12 Schools

The state Board of Education will decide how to implement the plan.

This is a photo of kids in a line all on cellphones.

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COLUMBIA — Public school students across South Carolina will be barred from using their cellphones during the school day under a clause legislators agreed to add to the state spending plan Thursday.

Education officials and teachers backed the proposal. For years, teachers have been asking the state for help controlling student cellphone use, said Sherry East, president of the South Carolina Education Association.

“Cellphones are a mega distraction,” said East, who also teaches high school science. “It’s hard to teach with kids on their cellphones.”

The clause was one of a number of funding stipulations that a committee of three House members and three senators approved during days of negotiations on the state’s more than $13.8 billion budget.

To continue receiving state funds, public school districts must adopt the statewide policy, which the state Board of Education will write.

How the state board plans to enforce the policy, ensuring schools and districts are actually keeping phones out of students’ hands, remains to be seen. There are also questions over whether to allow certain exceptions for safety situations.

“We think cellphones are a huge distraction in the classroom,” East said. “We are happy to see something being done about it, but it’s all going to be down to implementation.”

For example, some parents have questioned whether they would be able to reach their children in case of an emergency, state Superintendent Ellen Weaver said during a board meeting last month. That concern will need to factor that into the final policy, she said.

“While we certainly don’t want to ever deny a parent access to their child, at the same time, I think we have to balance these very real safety and instructional concerns that cellphones create,” Weaver said.

Varying policies

The goal is to improve students’ mental health and reduce bullying both in-person and online, Weaver said. While social media has some benefits, it can also hurt young people’s mental health, according to the U.S. Surgeon General.

In some cases, students use their cellphones for legitimate learning purposes. Peter Lauzon’s biomedical sciences class in Lexington-Richland School District Five often takes photos of nature as part of their assignments, which they submit online.

The problem is when students use their phones as a distraction, Lauzon told the SC Daily Gazette.

“If you’re competing with their favorite show on Netflix, that’s not always an easy thing to do,” Lauzon said. “But there is use for phones.”

Nationwide, about 77% of schools banned students from using their phones during school hours except for instructional purposes during the 2019-2020 school year, according to the latest available data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

Across South Carolina, policies vary. Greenwood School District 50 trustees voted this week to ban phones during the school day. Charleston County School District only allows students to use their phones during certain parts of the day, such as at lunch. Richland School District One bans phones during class time. Other districts have no policy at all.

House Ways and Means Chairman Bruce Bannister initially questioned whether the state needed an overarching rule, considering many districts already have their own rules about cellphones.

“Shouldn’t independently elected school boards weigh in on that?” Bannister said during budget debates Wednesday.

But going statewide will allow education officials to standardize policies across districts, Weaver said. That will likely involve working with superintendents who already have policies in place, “making sure that there is a benchmark for uniformity across the state,” Weaver said.

While the idea is popular among teachers, who have been calling for a solution for years, it may not be so popular among students.

“I’m willing for us to be the bad guys at the state level, if necessary, because I think this is just the No. 1 most common-sense thing we can do to start to get ahold of some of the discipline and mental health issues that our students are facing in school,” Weaver said.

The House and Senate both already had passed proposals limiting student’s cell phone use. But the two chambers differed on times those limits should be in place — all day or just during class time. On Thursday they agreed to a full-day ban, as the Senate proposed.

Other measures

Also on the list of special budget rules agreed to Thursday were two controversial measures from the Senate. One will require libraries to get parental permission before allowing children and teenagers to check out books with sexual content or risk losing state funding. The other will require students to use bathrooms and locker rooms aligned with their biological sex at birth.

While the Republican senators who proposed the measures said they will protect children from inappropriate content or boys pretending to be girls to go in the wrong locker room, some Democrats pushed back.

Sen. Tameika Isaac Devine, D-Columbia, argued restricting library books will penalize small libraries. She also argued requiring students use certain bathrooms will open up the state to lawsuits, as well as hurt transgender students who want to use the bathroom aligned with their gender.

Both proposals passed the Senate along party lines. The six-legislator committee agreed to add them to the final spending proposal.

SC Daily Gazette is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. SC Daily Gazette maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Seanna Adcox for questions: info@scdailygazette.com. Follow SC Daily Gazette on Facebook and X.

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