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Undercover high: Teachers have less control than ever

Teachers at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas, struggle to get their students to put their phones away.

A&E

  • Seven young adults went undercover as students at a Kansas high school for the show “Undercover High” on A&E.
  • They found that smartphones have made it harder and harder for teachers to do their jobs.
  • Students are constantly distracted by phones in class, even though the school has a no-phone policy.

At Highland Park High School, technology is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, computers and Smart Boards have transformed the way teachers can convey information in the classroom.

But on the other hand, the ubiquity of smartphones has made students more distracted than ever, leaving teachers with less control than ever.

The relationship between students and their phones is highlighted on the A&E documentary series “Undercover High,” in which seven young adults pose as students at Highland Park for a semester to understand the problems facing teenagers today.

The undercover students immediately noticed that teachers at Highland Park struggled to get students off their phones during class.

“I’m in my first class just looking around to see, like, what does a high schooler do? And I notice that everyone is on their phone,” said Daniel, a youth minister from Nashville and one of the undercover participants.

A Highland Park student uses her phone during class.

A&E

Several scenes from “Undercover High” show students using their phones to text, look at pictures and use social media while teachers went on with their lessons.

“When I was in high school, it was a no-phone zone,” said Daniel, who graduated high school in 2012. “Now, you’re allowed to be on your phone while the teacher’s teaching, and it’s a huge distraction.”

Computers at the school have firewalls in place to prevent students from accessing social media sites, but students easily circumvent them by using their own devices, according to Beryl New, who was principal of Highland Park when the show was filmed.

Students at the school are technically forbidden from using their phones during the school day unless teachers incorporate them into lessons, New said. In practice, however, students said they use their phones at all times of the day.

“You’re not supposed to have your phone out, but honestly, we don’t care,” one student said. “I probably check my phone about four times every five minutes,” said another.

Daniel, one of the undercover students at Highland Park High School.

A&E

Rampant phone use has a number of detrimental effects on Highland Park students. For one, conflicts between students often play out over social media and group texts rather than in plain sight, leaving school staff helpless in identifying and stopping bullying.

“Bullying has been a thing since the beginning of time, but it’s very different today,” Shane Feldman, an undercover student who graduated from high school in 2012, told Business Insider. “The 24/7 nature of it, the way that it transfers onto the online word, has an impact on everything.”

On top of that, frequent social media use has contributed to rising rates of depression among teenagers.

Administrators expressed hope that the use of technology in schools would be more carefully implemented. But for now, they are stuck playing catch-up to a rapidly changing world.

“I’m old enough to remember when we had no cell phones 12 to 15 years ago,” New told Business Insider. “To go with from a few people having them to most of the adults, to almost every single child — they can be a homeless child and have a cell phone, free and reduced meals and have a cell phone.”

“It’s a great leveler, socially.”

“Undercover High” airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on A&E.


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