INDIANAPOLIS — As students begin the new school year, the question of cell phones interfering with learning is a top of mind concern.

Teachers, parents and administrators alike agree that cell phones should never be used during classroom instruction. But whether that means keeping them in a pocket, a backpack, or inside a locker varies by district.

One of the more strict policies is at the two middle schools in Martinsville, which some parents are now petitioning against.

“I think kids should be able to have their cellphones always,” Timbyr Portish, a mother of four, said. “Whether they actually use them in the classroom, I believe it should be only for emergencies.

Portish is one of many parents who believe students should have their cell phones with them at all times. But that’s not the case at Martinsville middle schools.

Here, students have to keep their cell phones in lockers during the school day.

“I absolutely would rather my kids have their cellphones on [them],” she said. “With everything bad in this world, I want to be able to be in contact with my kids if I know something is going wrong at their school, and I can’t do that if they don’t have their phone on them.”

The policy is brand new this year for students at John R Wooden Middle School but has been in place for several years at Bell Intermediate Academy. Still, parents are speaking out. 

One parent started a petition last week to stop this policy with the top concern being safety. As of Monday afternoon, the petition had 169 signatures.

Eric Bowlen, the superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Martinsville said the policy was adopted to “improve the daily learning environment.”

Bowlen released a statement, saying in part:

“Keeping students engaged and learning throughout the school day is just part of the push to keep cell phones out of the classroom.”

Bowlen also said there are key safety measures already in place in case of an emergency, including all classrooms being equipped with phones, intercoms, and extensive camera and radio systems.

However, out of the many school districts in central Indiana, the policies at the middle schools in Martinsville seem to be the most strict.

For example, at Indianapolis Public Schools, students can have their cellphones with them, but they must be turned off and put away during class.

Students at Lawrence Township schools can keep their phones on them, and use them between classes.

At Carmel Clay Schools, students are allowed to use them in common areas when class is not in session.

A majority of other districts are similar to these policies, and Martinsville parents like Portish say this is what they want too.

“[Cell phones should] be silenced unless emergencies… Whether it be in your pocket, be in your backpack, wherever it is, just don’t be playing on it and pay attention in class,” she said.

As the petition in Martinsville continues to get signatures, only time will tell if a change will be made at the middle schools.

The full statement from Eric Bowlen, the superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Martinsville:

“Bell Intermediate Academy (BIA) students and John R. Wooden Middle School (JRW) students now follow the school policy to leave cell phones in lockers during the school day. BIA has followed this procedure since welcoming 5th and 6th grade students in the building in 2015. JRW students adopted this policy for the 2023-24 school year after research suggested this change would improve the daily learning environment. Martinsville High School students adopted a similar policy, that allows the students to place the cell phones in a designated area in each classroom. This policy is not uncommon, as other surrounding districts implement similar guidelines, such as Center Grove Middle School. I understand they have done this for several years.

After COVID, schools are struggling to keep students engaged in learning and off cell phones during instructional periods of the school day. According to Common Sense Media, an 8-12 year old averages 5.33 hours of screen time per day and a 13-18 year old averages 8.39 hours of screen time per day. 

Keeping students engaged and learning throughout the school day is just part of the push to keep cell phones out of the classroom. Bullying through social media, inappropriate recording of other students, and video-chatting has negatively impacted schools due to the past availability of cell phones. Administrators plan to decrease access to cell phones in an effort to decrease the amount of peer bullying.

Regarding safety, MSD staff and students are ALICE trained. Classrooms are equipped with phones and/or an intercom paging system. Furthermore, the district has extensive camera (state of the art) and radio systems that will assist during an emergency situation. We also have direct contact with local law enforcement agencies to provide support. Our first priority is student and staff safety, and we have the necessary resources in place. Student devices do not impact our ability to notify law enforcement during a crisis. While student devices would aide in the reunification with families after a crisis, it was determined the impact of daily access was a necessary step to improve the educational environment for our students and staff.”