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Photo via Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Your smartphone is not the problem here.

There’s no way the world would’ve known what happened at Spring Valley High School if it weren’t for a few defiant students who pulled out their cell phones in the middle of class. They broke the rules for the same reason why now-disgraced officer Ben Fields was reportedly called in to the classroom, where he slung a despondent, yet “disruptive” young Black woman from her desk and slammed her to the ground.

The primary focus of this incident is on police brutality and the disproportionate levels of school discipline that put young Black girls across America at risk every day. But those who explain the incident away, such as The View co-host Raven-Symoné, say that the incident wouldn’t have happened if the student didn’t bring her phone to school and hadn’t used it in class. 

Yet as the incident itself shows, carrying a cell phone in a classroom should be considered an indisputable right for high school students nationwide. Your smartphone is not the problem here. 

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It’s troubling that many schools harshly sanction any cell phone usage during school hours, regardless of whether or not it causes a substantial interference. In Columbia, South Carolina, for example—the home of Spring Valley High School—students can be charged with a misdemeanor for disturbing a classroom, punishable by up to 90 days in county jail and a fine of up to $1,000, as local newspaper the State reports. It’s the reason that both the assaulted student and 18-year-old Niya Kenny, who filmed one of the videos and screamed in outrage, were arrested and will face charges in fin the coming weeks.

In other words, kids are being punished for just being kids.

Carrying a cell phone in a classroom should be considered an indisputable right for high school students nationwide. 

According to a 2013 study from the Pew Research Center and Harvard University, as many as 78 percent of students ages 12 to 17 own a cell phone, and nearly half of them have a smartphone. And one of the most recent surveys available, published in 2007 from the Journal of Technological Studies, found that as many as 68 percent of cell phone-owning students in grades six to 12 carry it into the classroom. With the rising trend in cell phone usage by minors, it’s understandable that school administrators question whether or not they present issues for the learning environment.

Earlier this year, report after report praised the idea of banning cell phones in schools, citing a study that a strict cell phone policy improves students’ test scores. According to research published by the London School of Economics, which looked at how cell phone policy changes since 2001 have affected more than 130,000 pupils in schools across England, learning environments without cell phones were tied to a 6.4 percent increase in national exam scores—on average. For so-called “underachieving” students, specifically, scores rose by 14 percent.

As New York magazine noted, the study’s authors—laughably—described cell phone bans as a “low-cost way for schools to reduce educational inequality.” (To be clear, Republican threats to dismantle the Department of Education and funding for public schools in major cities are much larger, systemic problems that a cell phone ban won’t fix.) Moreover, the study’s authors wrote off cell phones as a “distraction.”

But it’s not the device that’s the cause—it’s a matter of student behavior and the ability of teachers to utilize their classroom management skills.

Even before the advent of digital devices, students with short attention spans found creative ways to bypass instructors. Most millennial and Gen-Xers recall the days of passing notes, spitball, throwing paper snowballs while the teacher’s back was turned to the class—or even playing footsie if you were lucky enough to sit next to the person you dated.

But a cell phone, in itself, is not a disruptive behavior, even though the device may give way to classroom distractions. 

If the teacher caught it, or another student snitched, then there was room to control any major disruptions and continue on with the lesson. After all, if a student consistently shows an unwillingness to learn, there may be deeper issues at play—such as a disability, trouble at home, or other behavioral issues that orders to “stop it” or “go to the principal’s office” won’t always solve.

But a cell phone, in itself, is not a disruptive behavior, even though the device may give way to classroom distractions. That’s where sound policy from school administrators, and even school districts, can best address the needs of their community—rather than enforcing a blanket ban on mobile devices.

Likely of no coincidence, the LSE study linking cell phones to test scores surfaced just months after Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, lifted a decade-long cell phone ban for all of the city’s schools, allowing each school to devise its own rules on cell phone use. As WNYC reported in March, students were prohibited from bringing cell phones to school because they were considered a distraction. But the policy’s critics, according to WNYC, said the ban wasn’t fairly enforced and was often ignored by principals, “except in almost 90 school buildings with metal detectors that are largely located in low-income communities.”

For many young people, a cell phone is a lifeline; a vital tool in communicating with outside adults who can use their wisdom to protect and support their children.

Aside from the disproportionate impact on impoverished students who are predominantly of color—a group that Pew’s research indicates is more likely to use a mobile device to access the Internet—de Blasio cited it as a “common sense” thing to do. After all, he says, “Parents should be able to call or text their kids.”

Mayor de Blasio has a point. In today’s connected world, a cell phone functions as a quicker, more direct form of communication, especially between family members and legal guardians. In the days before cell phones proliferated, parents had no choice but to call the school receptionist or show up to the main office before their child could be pulled out of the classroom for whatever reason. 

A text from a parent can be a well-being check or a message about a family emergency, but in schools like Spring Valley High, where Ben Fields’ abuses of power were long accepted as business as usual, a cell phone can be more than a luxury. For many young people, including a student like Niya Kenny, a cell phone is a lifeline—a vital tool in communicating with outside adults who can protect and support their children.

As activist and writer Shaun King argues at the New York Daily News, without the video, there would likely be no case—the accounts would’ve been simply a matter of witness testimony and hearsay, had it gone reported in the first place. “Without their videos, it’s highly doubtful that the officer would’ve been terminated because the teacher and administrator in the classroom each signed statements saying they supported the use of force,” King notes. “In other words, the videos and social media made this happen.”

It’s become clear since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement that the public reacts stronger to videos demonstrating excessive force and state-sanctioned violence. Although the public shouldn’t need to see images of Black suffering and death to understand a systemic issue, several years of protests, riots, academic research, and the heartfelt stories of Black people on social media (such as #IfIDieInPoliceCustody and #AliveWhileBlack) haven’t always been enough to sway those who staunchly defend police misconduct.

It’s not about banning digital devices, it’s about creating common sense community guidelines that maintain a positive learning atmosphere.

Videos like the one from Spring Valley and others of Sandra Bland’s arrest, Walter Scott’s shooting, and Eric Garner being choked to death have offered strong evidence of systemic police brutality to the public, even if law enforcement doesn’t always immediately take action to sanction members of their ranks. With the American Civil Liberties Union even offering a Mobile Justice app to instantly upload pictures and videos of police brutality reports, the public has clearly become aware that cell phones are a powerful tool in helping hold officials accountable.

Banning cell phones in a classroom removes a layer of personal security from students who need it most, removing them from the one device that could either save their lives or alert others that their life and well being is in danger. Fortunately, as the National Education Association notes, the tide is turning, as studies show 70 percent of schools that instituted bans five years ago are now reversing their policies.

Schools and school districts would do well to treat students’ possession of a cell phone as an indisputable right. It’s not about banning digital devices, it’s about creating common sense community guidelines that maintain a positive learning atmosphere. And a cell phone is the last thing educators should be worried about. 

Derrick Clifton is the deputy opinion editor for the Daily Dot and a New York-based journalist and speaker, primarily covering issues of identity, culture, and social justice.

Photo via Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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