LAUSD approves cellphone ban as Newsom calls for statewide action

Los Angeles, CA - June 18: LAUSD executive officer Michael McLean, left, listens as board member Nick Melvoin, right, comments prior to the board's vote on a Melvoin sponsored resolution to create truly phone-free school days across the district on Tuesday, June 18, 2024 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles school board member Nick Melvoin speaks Tuesday on his resolution to ban cellphone use by students. At left is board executive officer Michael McLean. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles school board Tuesday set in motion a plan to ban cellphones all day on campus, saying the devices distract students from learning, lead to anxiety and allow cyberbullying.

The ban would take effect in January after details are approved in a future meeting by the Board of Education, with the goal of enforcing it across a student's entire time at school, including lunch and other breaks.

"Our students are glued to their cellphones, not unlike adults," said board member Nick Melvoin, who spearheaded the resolution. "They're surreptitiously scrolling in school, in class time, or have their head in their hands, walking down the hallways. They're not talking to each other or playing at lunch or recess because they have their AirPods in."

The board action adds momentum to growing campaigns in California to restrict or eliminate cellphone use at schools amid reports about how the devices, coupled with the use of social media, coincide with skyrocketing anxiety and other harms to children.

State leaders are moving in the same direction as L.A. Unified.

California Assembly Bill 3216, introduced in February, would require school districts to adopt a policy to limit or prohibit student use of smartphones while at school or under the supervision of a school employee. The law would go into effect July 1, 2026.

The measure has the support of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

On Monday, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy asserted that social media use has become so prevalent and potentially damaging among young people that Congress should require warning labels on the online platforms, similar to those found on cigarette boxes.

“As the Surgeon General affirmed, social media is harming the mental health of our youth," Newsom said in a statement to The Times. "I look forward to working with the Legislature to restrict the use of smartphones during the school day. When children and teens are in school, they should be focused on their studies — not their screens.”

The Los Angeles Board of Education, at the suggestion of Supt. Alberto Carvalho, agreed to expand the resolution in an additional direction by targeting social media companies for potential litigation.

“I believe now's the time for Los Angeles Unified to take a legal position," Carvalho said, "that may include litigation against these powerful giant social media entities, who, for profit, are engaging in predatory behaviors and actions to capture the attention that will eventually victimize kids through a well-documented decaying of their mental health.”

The board resolution passed by a 5-2 vote.

All the board members expressed concerns over the harms of cellphone use and social media on students — as well as concerns that any ban should be carried out with full consideration of student and family needs.

Board President Jackie Goldberg, who co-sponsored the resolution, recounted a recent visit to a high school where she sat down with students sitting together at a table during lunch.

"I thought we could have a chance just to informally talk," Goldberg recounted. "All of them took out their cellphones."

That was only the first surprise.

"I thought they were contacting other people," Goldberg said. "They were talking to each other on their cellphones, rather than with their voices and their mouths. ... This is an addiction that is serious."

Another board co-sponsor, Tanya Ortiz Franklin, said her student advisory council has raised valid concerns.

Read more: Amid school crime spike, task force wants L.A. campuses to decide whether they need police

"We've seen in classrooms sometimes kids will forget their Chromebook, and they'll hop on their iPhone instead," Franklin said. "So we need to make sure we've got plenty of Chromebooks so that students are not relying on their personal iPhones to access school materials.

"The other thing I thought was interesting from [student] leaders is that they use text messaging to communicate about clubs and teams and events they're planning and things that need to change last minute," Franklin said. "It made me wonder if there were an app that could be on their Chromebooks — where they could be texting and communicating" with appropriate supervision.

Board member George McKenna voted no over concerns about the totality of the ban, although he said he was open to ongoing discussion of the matter.

He said it was important to respect student ownership over something that was important to them, especially for students from low-income families. He recalled that years ago, when he was a principal, students would be devastated at the thought of parting with the boomboxes they carried around.

He also wondered if a civil rights lawsuit would be launched over the matter.

Board member Rocio Rivas voted yes, but also was concerned that a cellphone ban be carried out equitably, respecting the different life situations of families.

Melvoin said the conversation has evolved from making sure that all have access to technology to making sure that students are protected from it.

"Some of the most expensive schools in the city and in this country have [had] phone-free policies in place for years because they've seen those effects," Melvoin said.

Board member Scott Schmerelson voted no because he said it was important to make a distinction between instructional time and noninstructional time.

Elements to be worked out include different approaches for various age groups and a range of technologies, such as smartwatches.

Board member Kelly Gonez, who voted yes, noted that recent immigrants use smartphones for translation. Such allowances would need to be considered, she said.

Options to carry out the ban under consideration include providing cellphone lockers or pouches that keep devices locked up and inaccessible until they're tapped against a magnetic device when exiting campus. Technology also could be used to block access to social media platforms.

Read more: Opinion: Why LAUSD should ban smartphones in schools

Some parents, however, want their children to have cellphones for safety and communication, and school administrators say the ban could be difficult to enforce.

Supporters who spoke Tuesday included a district middle school principal who said such a ban has improved the learning environment at his campus.

Also endorsing the resolution was Venice High math teacher Jessica Quindel, who likened the struggle to manage cellphone use to a draining, nonstop marathon.

She joined Venice High School’s Phone Free-er Focus Group, a group of 10 teachers who successfully pushed the school staff toward setting up the campus as a largely phone-free zone.

"Enforcement is the hardest thing because there is not enough staff to constantly take away phones and call home," she said. A clear districtwide policy would help, she added.

Student objections to a ban are anticipated.

"Very furious," is how Helen Ho, 16, a rising junior at Narbonne High in Harbor City, described her reaction. Students need phones for emergency situations and to maintain access to family, she said.

A ban, she added, also would infringe students' rights to self expression: "Students are already so restricted in school settings."

At school, she said, she uses her phone for educational purposes, such as applying to programs or accessing information from fliers that often provide only QR codes, for which "you can't use your laptop."

For her, a phone is a source of connection and stability.

Rising Reseda High senior Neel Thakkar, 16, is receptive to the ban.

He recalled struggling to focus on studying for Advanced Placement exams because he was "addicted to Instagram" and couldn't "stop picking up [his] phone ... even for two seconds."

He deleted the app from his phone because he "had to get off of it."

"It was very hard at first," he said.

In comments to the Board of Education, he suggested the district create a platform in which students can voice their concerns and opinions about this policy.

Read more: Teens know how social media affects mental health. So they created resources to help

The teachers union — United Teachers Los Angeles — took a wait-and-see approach.

"UTLA looks forward to understanding how the proposed cellphone policy will differ from the current one," said union Vice President Alex Orozco. "More importantly, we want to know how all stakeholders will be included in the decision-making."

The board resolution cited research in line with the policy, including a national survey on drug use and health by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that found that among those born after 1995, anxiety increased 139% from 2010 to 2020, coinciding with the rise in smartphones and social media.

In addition to his support for warning labels, Surgeon General Murthy wrote in a 2023 advisory that social media may be linked to a growing mental health crisis among teens.

The language added to the resolution builds on such concerns:

"The District shall also evaluate the impact of social media use by young people, including on their mental health, to formulate a strategy that contemplates — but is not restricted to — litigation against social media entities that operate platforms that use algorithms that appeal to students who develop addiction to such platforms with well documented mental and physical deleterious consequences to youth."

Read more: The pandemic took a harsh toll on teen girls’ mental health, CDC says

The district resolution also cites a 2016 Common Sense Media survey that found half of teens feel “addicted” to their phones. A 2023 study of 200 students by the same group found that 97% of 11- to 17-year-olds used their phones during the school day.

The resolution states too that there is evidence that "limiting cellphone usage and social media access during the school day increases academic performance and has positive effects on student mental health."

L.A. Unified already has a social media policy in place that embodies many elements of what Melvoin is pushing for. This policy sets out that "approved social media is to be used at school for educational purposes only and under the direction of a teacher or school leader. Home use of social media on district or personal electronic devices is limited to only sites approved by the district’s web filtering system."

District policies in this area have not been fully updated since 2011 and enforcement has been sporadic as smartphones have become commonplace.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.