Cyberbullying, filming fights: Why Granite School District may ban cellphones

Throughout the district, student cellphone access is currently decided at the school level.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students look at their cellphones after school as they leave Granite School District's Evergreen Junior High School on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. The district is considering implementing a universal policy banning cellphone use during school.

Students filming others in the restroom. School fights being posted on Instagram.

These are just a couple examples Granite School District officials shared at a school board meeting last month, discussing whether or not the district should implement a universal policy banning cellphone use during school hours.

The restroom videos are sometimes filmed from above stalls. Others are filmed from below stalls and posted to “shoe accounts,” said Ben Horsley, the district’s chief of staff — social media pages that feature videos of classmates using the restroom, with their shoes visible and captioned with campus restroom locations and time stamps, meant to “intimidate and harass.”

“It’s very tragic actually, to see how much mental health challenges are cultivated as a result of these accounts and screen use,” Horsley said at the meeting last month. “But at the end of the day, this is having a larger, outsized impact on instruction.”

The roughly two-hour conversation came as state lawmakers since at least 2023 have increasingly debated student cellphone use and social media restrictions. It also comes after Gov. Spencer Cox in January penned a letter urging all Utah school districts and public charters to restrict student cellphone use during class.

A new Utah law also requires local school boards to provide students with nonelectric notifications about things like extracurricular activities, schedule changes and more, which could “significantly” diminish cellphone use, Horsley said.

“Unfortunately, our kids are not being monitored,” Horsley said during the March 19 meeting. “And it shouldn’t fall to a business, the school operations, the principals, the teachers to have to monitor that, on top of trying to provide quality instruction.”

Granite’s current cellphone policy

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A student looks at their cellphone as they leave Evergreen Junior High School on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. The school has had a no-cellphone policy for about five years.

Granite students are not supposed to use cellphones in ways that harm other students. But no district-wide policy about whether or not students can access their phones during school currently exists.

Instead, cellphone access is decided at the school level, according to Doug Larson, the district’s general counsel.

At least two schools did decide about five years ago to ban cellphone use on campus: Evergreen Jr. High School and Olympus Jr. High School.

There, if a teacher catches a student with their phone out, the device is placed in an envelope and taken to the front office, where it can be picked up at the end of the day.

Students who need to contact their parents must to go to their school’s counseling center or an administrator to do so, said Eisenhower Jr. High principal Wes Cutler, who was the principal of Evergreen at the time the policies were implemented at each school. He later introduced a cellphone ban at Eisenhower.

Evergreen principal Ryan Shaw said the school made over 700 cellphone confiscations in the first year of its policy. As of the March school board meeting, a little more than 200 cellphone confiscations had been logged.

“It works very well at Evergreen,” Shaw said. “It isn’t a big deal anymore, with having to fight that battle with students and taking them away … because they know they can’t have them out at any time.”

Board leaders, administrators split

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) A student puts their cellphone in their pocket as they leave Evergreen Junior High School in Millcreek on Tuesday, April 16, 2024.

Cutler said he would like to see the district implement a universal cellphone policy, at least for grades K-8.

“As mobile as our student body is,” he said, having different policies per school can make things difficult.

“It is hard when students jump junior high to junior high, and [each] has new policies in every place,” Cutler said. “It would take that pressure off of the schools to try to deal with that.”

Board member Julie Jackson said in her precinct, five junior high schools have a no-cellphone policy. The students seem to be OK with it, and the parents seem to support it, she said.

But she noted that such support may be easier to cultivate when policies are created at the individual school level.

“Since this comes from the [School] Community Council, you really get community support,” she said.

Board member Karyn Winder said the teachers she’s spoken with feel a district-wide policy would be empowering, allowing them “and frankly, IT administrators, to basically say, ‘Look guys, it’s not our policy, this is coming from the district,’” she said.

School board leaders plan to discuss implementing such a policy again next week, gauging feedback collected since the March meeting.