Virginia Senate Bill Proposes Allowing School Boards to Prohibit Cell Phones During School Hours

Several school boards in Virginia have initiated bans or restrictions on the use of cellphones in schools. Now, the Virginia Senate is supporting a proposal that would explicitly authorize local boards to implement these bans on cellphones and other handheld communication devices during regular school hours.

The legislation cleared the Senate on a 36-3 vote Tuesday. It will require approval from the House of Delegates and Gov. Glenn Youngkin to become effective.

“I’m not telling them to ban cellphones,” said Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin, the bill’s sponsor, during a hearing earlier this month. “I think we should send a clear message to our school systems that if they find it’s in their best interest to do so during school hours, they should have every right to do so.”

Several school divisions in Virginia, including Carroll County and the city of Richmond, have already imposed restrictions on cellphone use during school hours.

Richmond City Schools introduced a pouch pilot program that allows students to keep their cellphones in a locked pouch until the end of the school day.

According to recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 76.9% of schools nationwide prohibit cellphone use during school hours.

Pros and cons

Virginia lawmakers have spent several weeks debating whether legislation is needed to support a ban on cellphone use during school hours.

Supporters argue that the bill, which states that “each school board may develop and implement a policy to prohibit the possession or use of cell phones and other handheld communication devices during regular school hours,” could help reduce disruptions in classrooms and discourage harmful behaviors such as students recording school fights for online publication.

“I think we need to alert ourselves in this commonwealth on a statewide basis that this is an issue, and that we trust our school boards and we trust our schools to implement a policy that, one, makes sure that learning is paramount as what everyone wants it to be, and two, that our children are protected,” Stanley said.

However, opponents argue that the law is unnecessary because school boards already have the power to limit cellphone use.

Sens. Stella Pekarsky, D-Fairfax, Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, and Saddam Azlan Salim, D-Fairfax, voted against the bill on Tuesday.

Pekarsky has stated that while cellphone use in schools is an important issue, “I just see this as a redundant law. It’s not needed in my opinion. It’s not a mandate. It’s just permissive.”

Supporters acknowledge that some districts have already implemented bans, but they believe the Dillon Rule may be confusing to others. Under the Dillon Rule, a legal doctrine that governs local-state relations in Virginia, local governments are only allowed to exercise powers explicitly granted to them by the state government.

“The reason why they didn’t think that they could do what this bill proposes to do is because of the old Dillon Rule that says that localities don’t do something unless we empower them to do so,” Stanley said. “But this bill makes it clear that we here in the commonwealth of Virginia…encourage all of our school systems to develop their own policy when it comes to regulating or prohibiting the use of cell phones and handheld devices.”

Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Richmond, who also works as a teacher, said, “I don’t have a problem throwing some redundancy in the code if it’s going to help facilitate that conversation because it needs to be had.”

“We know our friends at the local level sometimes like to dither around,” he said. “If this helps encourage some of those conversations, I think that’s to the good.”

Federal interest

Congress is also considering whether to restrict cellphones during school hours.

Last November, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, introduced a bill along with Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, to study the effects of cellphones on students in K-12 classrooms.

The legislation would also establish a $25 million, five-year pilot program that would provide schools with secure containers for students to store phones during school hours.

“We’ve made a lot of progress in our recovery from the depths of the pandemic. But there’s much more work to be done to help students overcome learning loss and excel in the classroom,” Kaine said in a statement. “That includes looking into how cellphone use in schools is impacting students’ mental health and their ability to learn. This bill would help us do that, by gathering information and providing it to schools as they grapple with students’ use of cellphones in class and how to best set them up for success.”

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