A Utah lawmaker wants schools to restrict cellphones because she’s concerned students are looking at porn

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ensign Elementary school principal Erik Jacobson discusses the new app on his phone that allows him to start an immediate alert that goes directly to police, the district and all the teachers in his school on Aug. 4, 2018.

A conservative state representative is urging Utah school districts to have a policy restricting cellphones because she worries that students are using their personal devices to look at pornography.

Most schools, said Rep. Susan Pulsipher, have internet filters that block illicit websites on their computers or their Wi-FI networks. But students can use the data on their phones to get around those.

“Many kids are being exposed to inappropriate materials,” the South Jordan Republican added. “Sometimes this is happening in fourth grade, fifth grade.”

The House Education Committee discussed the bill Wednesday, and the Utah Board of Education will examine a rule along the same lines at its Friday meeting. Most school districts have a cellphone policy, but it’s not mandated and most parents do not know about it, or it’s not enforced.

And while pornography is the “big fish in the pond” that Pulsipher is targeting with HB237, she also believes the cellphone rules could stop students from cheating, getting distracted in class or bullying their peers online. All districts would have to create a policy, talk to parents and students about it and train teachers.

“We’re trying to help kids be safe,” the lawmaker said.

Each district and school would draft its own rules, such as only allowing cellphones during lunchtime or requiring that all devices be turned off while on campus, and it would have to be approved by its local school board. Some teachers might want to allow smartphones for certain assignments, Pulsipher said, and those cases could be written into any restrictions.

If the measure passed, schools would be required to put the policies in place by August and update them every two years to keep up with changing technology.

Some committee members, including former teachers, said they appreciated the proposal after years of trying to get students to put phones away — some talking about how they required kids to deposit them in a basket before class, others take away points from those who used them, a few not knowing what they were allowed to do or not do.

“Certainly, this is something we need to address in schools,” said Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Cottonwood Heights.

During the public comment period, though, there was more debate over the bill’s purpose.

Chelsie Acosta, a teacher at Glendale Middle School, said that legally she’s not allowed to take a student’s phone since it is considered personal property. She walks around her classroom during lessons and tells kids to put them away but that’s about all she can do.

Most of the time, too, she said, it’s a parent texting the child. So what Acosta would rather see is for moms and dads to set rules for their kids, to know when they are in class and to watch what they are posting, particularly when they’re not on campus, with an eye on bullying or sexual extortion.

“The issue is not at school,” she said. “I need parents to help us to monitor at home what’s going on on social media.”

Madeline Anderson, a high school student, said the problem with cellphones in schools is that they distract not only the students using them — but also those around them. She took orchestra every year since seventh grade but didn’t sign up this year, as a senior, because the student she shared a stand with watched movies on Netflix while they practiced their violins.

“Having phones get in the way of that was frustrating,” she said. “The school systems need better policies.”

One mother echoed Pulsipher in expressing concern about students using their phones to access porn. Another said the worst students are doing is watching YouTube music videos.

President-elect of the Utah School Boards Association and the executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools said they appreciated the idea behind the legislation but noted they didn’t think it could be enforced in any meaningful way.

“I am uncertain that passing a law that says you need to adopt the policy that you already have will bridge the fact that sometimes those policies don’t get followed,” said Royce Van Tassell with the charter school association. “I wish I could wave that magic wand. But I can’t. I worry this is a bit unnecessary.”

McKay Jensen with the school boards association said he went to a Provo elementary school where students weren’t supposed to have cellphones at all. When he asked a class of 28 how many had one, he said 22 students raised their hands.

“They all knew the policy,” he said. “They all were clear on the policy.”

Pulsipher’s bill did not move out of committee Wednesday. The state Board of Education has been drafting a similar proposal for months, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson.

That rule, if passed Friday, would require districts and charter schools to sign an assurance that they have a policy on cellphones and that principals know how to enforce it.