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During break, Roseland Accelerated Middle School students gathered outside their classrooms, chatting and helping each other with assignments before the next class. Notably missing was a ubiquitous part of everyday life in the digital age: smartphones.

The school rolled out a new campuswide policy this year, requiring students to hand over their phones or store them in their bags during school hours, including lunchtime and breaks.

“For a couple of them it was like taking their hand away,” said Michael Healy, an eighth-grade teacher who piloted the policy in his classroom last school year. “It was really hard.”

With today’s round-the-clock connectivity, students have limitless information, music, photos and videos available at their fingertips. While smartphones are useful in everyday life, educators say they also become a distraction in class, and they’re continually looking for ways to encourage responsible cellphone use.

Healy said he noticed students were habitually sending Snapchat and text messages during class time.

“I realized that their lives were all about their phone, which means they weren’t in the class,” said Healy, who has taught in the Roseland district for 17 years. “They were not present in the class. They were physically here, but not mentally here.”

Principal Haley Piazza not only worried about how cellphones affect students’ academics, but also their emotional well-being.

“With their ability to access pretty much anything, what kind of changes are we seeing in them as humans? What kind of changes are we seeing in their behaviors and their reactions to things…” Piazza questioned.

She said cellphones in school introduced a host of issues, including cyberbullying.

Before enacting the schoolwide policy, Piazza dealt with at least one or two cellphone issues, including class disruptions, a week. This year, she’s had “very few, if any.”

Classrooms on her campus now have cellphone racks with numbered slots where students store their phones. Piazza said students have embraced the transition.

“It’s a relief because I don’t have to worry about what’s going on if somebody calls me,” said eighth-grader Xitlalic Trejo, 12, who got her first iPhone at 11. “I can just do my schoolwork and not worry because it’s over there.”

Eighth-grader Natalie Deng, 12, uses her iPhone to read her favorite Japanese comics and laugh at funny memes on Instagram, but she supports her school’s new policy.

“Everyone’s just so attached to their cellphone nowadays,” said Deng, who prefers to store her phone in her backpack during class time.

Students and staff say the school culture already has changed since the policy was implemented. During free periods, they interact more.

“It’s a little bit more social,” said eighth-grader Jesus Farias, 14.

Students say they hear fewer conversations about what someone posted on Snapchat and focus more on the present.

“It changes where they’re at, the mindfulness of them being there. They’re actually there a little more,” Healy said.

Piazza said parents have provided positive feedback. They’re happy students are still able to bring their phones to school but glad their kids can disconnect for the day.

Piazza estimated about 90 percent of the school’s 300 students own cellphones.

“It’s sort of a rite of passage” for middle schoolers to own them, Healy said.

Nationwide, 73 percent of teens have access to smartphones, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study.

In Petaluma, junior high students aren’t allowed to have cellphones out during school hours without teacher permission, and high schoolers only are allowed access during breaks and lunch, said Dave Rose, assistant superintendent of student services.

“It’s a good thing because a cellphone is not an integral part of the day for students,” Rose said. “We have generations upon generations of people who have made it through school without phones.”

All K-12 students in the district are issued iPads, so they still reap the benefits of digital technology, Rose said.

At Healdsburg High School, students can be on their phones during breaks and lunch, Principal Bill Halliday said. Some teachers there have voiced support for a cellphone ban, while others emphasize teaching students responsible use. A few classrooms have phone crates like Roseland Accelerated, Halliday said.

“It’s a challenge for all of us to not get lost in our phones,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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