Should Schools Adopt ‘Cellphone Jails’?

Voices | EdSurge Podcast

Should Schools Adopt ‘Cellphone Jails’?

By Zainab Kuta     Jun 20, 2023

Should Schools Adopt ‘Cellphone Jails’?

It was boiling, and there was lots of disgruntled chatter. It was 2018, on the first day of seventh grade. The administration at my school — the Bronx Academy of Letters — was implementing a new, strange-sounding policy called Yondr. It’s a company that makes lockable phone pouches.

The school had us all standing in a long line in front of the building. At the front, each student was asked if they had a phone. If you answered no, they’d call your parents to confirm.

If you answered yes, you were given a Yondr pouch, a gray neoprene pouch with locking magnetic flaps at the top. Every day from then on, after swiping our IDs, we’d grab a pouch from the bin, drop our phones in, and then go to class.

Students had strong feelings about the new policy.

“I believe that Yondr is a waste of time and I just don’t think it’s crucial, like I don’t think it’s necessary. We’re very old, we’re mature. If they ask us to put our phones away we’ll put our phones away. It's never that serious. I just don’t think that it’s necessary,” said one student.

“I would say it probably just makes teachers more untrustworthy of students because they are aware of students breaking open pouches,” another told me.

These students bring up big questions: Is the Yondr phone policy discounting student maturity? How is the policy affecting student-teacher relationships? Even if Yondr accomplishes its main goal — keeping students off their phones during class — should schools just continue to apply the policy with zero regard for its opposition?

I’m a junior at Bronx Academy of Letters, and a reporter for the Miseducation podcast. In this episode, I’ll be taking a close look at the impact of restrictive cellphone policies on schools like mine.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

People who support the Yondr pouches will tell you that it helps with student learning by removing distractions from the classroom.

Yondr works like a subscription, and it costs schools around $6,000 to $7,000 annually.

Nationwide, as of 2020, 76 percent of schools ban cellphones in the classroom.

I sat down with Amy Schless, my principal at Bronx Academy of Letters, and asked why the administration chose to use Yondr as a phone policy.

“So we first considered Yondr several years ago. In 2018, I believe the fall of 2018, because we had found that students having cellphones was interfering with student learning. Right,” she said.

However, the roll-out of Yondr wasn’t the smoothest.

“It was hard to implement and keep consistent,” said Schless. “Students were breaking pouches. We would find phones out of pouches and have to have consequences, but we weren't seeing phones in classrooms, which was the main goal of the policy.”

But when the pandemic happened in 2020, all of a sudden some students began relying on their phones to be able to participate in remote learning. When we returned to the building for hybrid learning, students were not expected to lock up their phones. But when school returned to fully in-person, the policy was brought back — and this time stronger.

“I decided over the summer that in September of 2022 we were going to really bring back Yondr full force, full implementation, full follow through,” said Schless. “And I do know that there are issues with the policy. It's not always that every phone is locked up every single day. However, for the majority, we do not see phones in classrooms or during transitions or anything like that. That is my main reason for reimplementing it strongly was all around student learning.”

I think a huge part of student learning is our relationships with our teachers. I sat down with my school’s history and debate teacher, Mr. Kossof, to get his take.

“There are definitely positives and negatives to Yondr,” he said. “It creates moments in between students and teachers that might create tension in the room and also might destroy a little relationships between the teachers and students because they have that moment where they're telling a student that they can't have this and they're having their personal cellphone taken away, which even for an adult could be really difficult.”

Yondr takes the responsibility of knowing when it is and isn’t appropriate to have your phone out away from students. When you take away a student's choice, they don’t feel like they are being respected. There's a disconnect in terms of trust between students and teachers.

I spoke with my friend Rokhiya, who is currently student president of Harlem Prep High School. Her school also uses Yondr.

“I'm going to be honest,” she said. “When my school first started the Yondr system, most people weren't happy with it, you know, including myself, because, like, it felt like they were taking away our phones from us. Even for students who are actively on their phones during class. So we did feel like, you know, they were violating me, you know, like I did feel all those feelings of distrust and all that when it first started. But honestly, like, I think after doing it for like a year, it hasn't been that bad. And I just stopped caring about my phone.”

Rokhiya’s school — like mine — has a largely Black and Latino student population. Since she’s an elected representative of her school, she has to listen to and address student concerns while also working with her school’s admin.

“I wish they would have talked about students first about implementing this instead of just going ahead and behind our backs and doing it,” she said. “But now looking back on it, it's not that bad. The only thing that is sad that I wish we could do was use our phones during lunch because I feel like that's a time period where you should be able to just chill.”

I definitely see the pros and cons of Yondr as a phone regulation policy, but I think the general sentiment, at least for students, is that the cons outweigh the pros.

I wanted to hear what Yondr itself thought about what students had to say. So I sat down with two Yondr representatives from the NYC Division, Katherine Panayotov, the manager of educational partnerships and Jade Mathis, the leader of student programming.

“Overall, if someone were to take my phone right now, it would feel mildly punitive and I would think that there was something wrong with it,” Mathis said. “But I think when you do have that ability to understand the ideology behind it and building that healthy habit, then I think it does open this different dialogue with the students.”

I bring up demographics because my research shows that Yondr is common in schools that are in low-income areas, and that includes my own.

“My focal point is New York City, so I see most of the leads coming in from the city as well as now the outer suburbs,” said Panayotov. “And as of late, we really have the majority of our schools, I would say, in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Those are the two major boroughs that we see traction. And it's also where we had some of our first initial partnerships. So we don't do any sort of marketing or pushes at schools coming to us looking for a solution or an approach, an initiative to tackling what they see kind of as that issue.”

I asked if bringing Yondr into schools has led to any tangible, positive results like increased focus and less disruption during class.

“Sixty-five percent of our schools see a positive uptick in focus and attention in the classroom,” said Panayotov. “And about closer to 80 percent are reporting that social and emotional benefits like more engagement, seeing students interact with each other or in class and participating has increased tenfold just because of the fact that they don't have that distraction or something that is keeping them away from really being present in that moment.”

I reached out to the New York City Department of Education for comments about their stance on phone regulation in schools, but the press office declined to comment.

After talking to my principal, teachers, students, and the Yondr reps, my main takeaway is this: Yondr ultimately accomplishes its purpose of more focused student learning. However, it comes at a cost. The message that the policy sends to students is that they aren’t responsible enough to understand when it’s appropriate to use their phones. It can also lead to a breakdown in trust between students and teachers.

There’s a world in which the rigidness of Yondr isn’t necessary. Many schools do just fine without it. In fact, in a quick poll of my fellow Miseducation interns, it was clear that many of their schools have found a middle ground that allows students to use their phones during lunch or other break periods but keep them in their backpacks during class.

Ultimately, the biggest issue in all of this is students feeling like they have no voice. Whatever cellphone policy schools choose, students should be involved in the decision-making process. We recognize the importance of focusing during class. We want to learn. And, if given the opportunity, I’m confident that we can work together with our school administrators to find a compromise that meets our needs.

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up