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This Scottsdale middle school principal has banned cellphones for years. Here's why

Schools in Arizona and around the country are grappling with how to deal with the proliferation of cell phones in the classroom. Some schools are letting students have them out in between classes and at lunch. Others are buying up smartphone pouches that lock them up in each classroom. 

Whatever the policy, many teachers say phones have become a big distraction in the classroom — and,  some say, they’re killing the campus community as students walk around with their eyes glued to their screens. On the other side, though, parents have been concerned that without them, they can’t get a hold of their kids during the day. What if there’s an emergency? 

Well, our next guest was ahead of the curve on this one. Robert Akhbari is the principal of Desert Canyon Middle School. When he got the job five years ago, he implemented a new policy about phones in schools: You can’t have them. It’s called "Away for the Day,” and Akhbari also said the motivation for it came from the teachers.

Full conversation

ROBERT AKHBARI: It was still at the relative infancy of cell phones. I think it picked up more during COVID, but students were, it was a distraction in the classroom. And what happened was the teachers, at the end of every school year, we sit with the teachers and say, "Hey, what worked this year? What didn't work?" And what came up a lot was the students weren't paying attention. They weren't engaged, because they were constantly looking at their phone, checking for the next snap or tweet. So, the teachers had the concern at first. That was the year before I became principal. So, the next, during the summer, I came in, listened to the teachers, and we figured out as a school that this was the direction we need to go. We need to go into a Away for the Day, have students put the phones away. One of the things that we did different than most people is we did it at lunch as well. And so, right now, the kids don't use cell phones during the school day, the whole day, including lunch. At the beginning, when we introduced this five years ago, the parents were great. I had one concern, that was it, it was more of a concern of "how can I contact my child?" I explained that we have regular phones all throughout the entire building. 

LAUREN GILGER: Well, was it a little touchy at the time, though? I mean, this is a challenge that schools around the country are facing today in having to kind of grapple with the response from the community. And lots of parents are saying they're concerned about being able to get ahold of their kids during the day, things like that. One parent, that's it, that's all you got?

AKHBARI: That's it. The families in this neighborhood are pro-education, and they saw the value in it. And so, I didn't have any concerns.

GILGER: So, tell us exactly what the policy is Robert. When you say Away for the Day is it just that they have to turn off their phones, put them in their bags, or lockers? Are they in those sort of pouches that you can get that lock them away?

AKHBARI: Well, let me start by saying that I as a parent myself, I know how important cell phones can be. They are a good tool. And our students do participate in sports or after-school activities. They need their cell phones. We also don't want to take the phones away from them as far as being in control of their phone all day. So, we've asked our students to turn them off and put them in their backpacks. We don't want to see them. In other words, you can't pull them out, we just don't want to see them. And that's kind of where it lies for the whole day. We don't, I know some schools have a parking lot for the phones, that there's a chance of it being stolen or taken. We don't want, don't want to get involved with that. So, what we do is tell the students put it in your bag, put it turn it off and put it away.

GILGER: Okay, so you said the teachers pushed for this, you didn't get a lot of pushback from parents. What about students at the time? I mean, this was five years ago, so a little bit of a different world in terms of social media, but I'm sure it wasn't easy for them.

AKHBARI: Well, you know, at the beginning, you got some pushback. But when you've created a policy and an entire school, and teachers are all on board, it becomes the norm of your campus. And so, at the beginning, of course, you know, you got a little pushback here and there. I'm not going to be naïve and say to you they don't take their phone and go to the bathroom. We can't check the bathrooms. But, for the most part, at the beginning, I thought it was a lot easier, it actually evolved and moved well. Part of the policy is, is that when the student does use their phone, we'll take the phone away from them, they can pick it up at the end of the school day. The second offense, we wait for the parents to come pick it up. And so we are now including the parents in the policy as well. And that's usually the point when when a parent has to come down and pick up their phone, that's usually when I never see that phone again. So, and again, our parents are on board. So, we have that type of policy. If it gets to like the fourth time, then we ask the students to bring their phone to the front office and we have a box where we lock it up. We have yet to have to do that.

GILGER: Alright, so kids may be taking their phones with them to the bathroom, but in general people following this rule. Tell us a little bit about the difference you saw when you implemented this.

AKHBARI: Well, a few things happen. The first thing that I noticed right away was that our cafeteria was loud. And I was talking to other students, and then one that students said "yeah, it's gotten a lot louder." Well, that's because they're not on their phones anymore. They're actually talking face-to-face. And I think this is a skill that middle schoolers in particular need, to learn how to read facial expressions, and work with each other in such a way where they're not behind the screen. So, the first thing that they're talking with each other. The second thing is that classroom engagement has gone up to the point where we earned a "A" rating from the state for the last few years, because I think this is part of it, the kids aren't worrying about what's happening on the other side of their phone. The third thing that I've noticed, the big difference, is our cyber bullying has dropped quite a bit. Because in the past, what they would do is kids would take not-so-nice pictures of each other, and then post it post it everywhere. But the key is they're engaged, they're working now, the teachers have time to work with students, and we we're not losing class time.

GILGER: I wonder what you think the impact of social media has largely been on students today. I mean, it's it's even more ubiquitous now than it probably was five years ago when you implemented this rule. But I mean, is it something that you think is is hurting kids?

AKHBARI: I believe so. Because, especially middle schoolers, I'm going to talk really more about middle schoolers in particular, middle schoolers are still trying to figure out who they are. And what they're doing is going online and seeing what I call the front stage of everybody else. So everybody's else is smiling, having a great time, online, and middle schoolers are having this anxiety on the back end, and you don't see that. So, now they all think they're have to keep up with the Joneses here. I will also say this, and I'm talking about cell phones in general, I believe cell phones are a tool for adults. They're great, great tools. But when you give it to an adolescent who really doesn't know how to handle it, they try to act like an adult, and they end up kind of failing at that because they're doing their best not to be themselves.

GILGER: Okay, so let me ask you, lastly, then, so you were the first school in the district to do this five years ago, and it's kind of a conversation happening now that schools are switching to "away for the day" policies or some kind of restrictions on phones in schools. Now that the Scottsdale Unified School District has implemented this district wide this year, I guess, what's your advice as schools kind of grapple with this?

AKHBARI: Well, maybe three steps, really. And it's anybody that wants to implement this. The first step is teachers, if you get the teachers on board, and the teachers agree with you, and they're willing to follow the policy, right off the bat, that's the first one. The second one is communication with our parents. Let them know what what we're doing, and really, why we're doing it. At the end of the day, it comes down to we want our students to be engaged in class and to learn. And finally, the third one is letting the students know what the policy is and reinforcing that policy over and over again, until it becomes part of the culture. And that's the key the culture of our school now is that we don't do phones. And now as rising fifth graders come to sixth grade, they already know, the parents already know. There's no phones here.

GILGER: All right. We will leave it there for now. That is Robert Akhbari, principal of Desert Canyon Middle School in Scottsdale joining us they've had an Away for the Day policy for five years now. Robert, thank you for coming on. Thank you for telling us about this. I really appreciate it.

AKHBARI: Lauren, I appreciate your time too. Thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.