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Phones distract kids in classrooms, so this district is requiring students to lock them up.

Yondr created a locking pouch for people to hold their phones in during performances.
Courtesy of Yondr
Yondr created a locking pouch for people to hold their phones in during performances.

Michael Mosel likes having a direct line to his daughter. She’s a freshman at Torrington High School and she gets anxious when things get too rambunctious in the hallways. Mosel says it helps when she can call her dad.

“Just relax, breathe, just basically talking to us is what helps in general, not so much as what we say just being there to say it,” he said.

That’s why Mosel is fighting against a policy that would require students to lock their phones away throughout the school day.

Torrington Public Schools is the first public school district in the state to require students lock away their phones during class. Administrators and educators instituted the use of locking phone pouches in the hopes that restricting use will improve students’ academics and mental health.

Torrington middle schoolers started after spring break in April, and high schoolers are expected to start in the fall. A company called Yondr provides locking pouches to each student. When they enter the building, students should swipe the pouch across a magnet that locks it, and they’ll unlock it at the end of the day.

“This was an issue prior to COVID, but it escalated so much more on the return back after COVID,” said Fiona Cappabianca, chair of the Torrington Board of Education. “We got to the point where parents were contacting the kids all throughout the day, by phone, by text, by FaceTime.”

Cappabianca said she hopes the pouches help students develop better boundaries and make it easier for the teachers to manage their classrooms. An administrator told the Board that a majority of the behavior issues he dealt with started with cell phones.

The middle school program will cost $17,875, and the high school program, $16,175 according to Cappabianca. The board said they used federal COVID relief dollars.

Yondr gave a presentation to the Board of Education in February. The company said they are in over 1,200 schools across the world and alleges that test scores have improved after the pouches are implemented. Students and parents spoke against the decision. Some said teachers will sometimes ask students to use their phones for class, and others advocated for a more incremental approach.

If it’s only one group of stakeholders that thinks this is a great idea, that’s gonna cause a lot of other ripple effect problems.
Rebecca Comizio, a school psychologist at the New Canaan Country School

The next day, high school students staged a kind of protest, by speaking up in the auditorium and pulling fire alarms. School was dismissed early.

Gary Eucalitto, a member of the Board who invited Yondr to present said, “parents were aghast, and so were the rest of the board members. “The kids don’t have the right run the school” was the response. And basically, I think the attitude was “we’re taking the school back.” Eucalitto said after the protest, board members who were on the fence were convinced.

Mosel, the father of a Torrington high school student, said he wished the approach was a little more nuanced.

“It should have been more of a disciplinary [thing]. Not ‘oh, every one of you needs to use this because some of you were bad,'” Mosel said. Eucalitto said the change was sudden.

“We as a board agree that cell phones serve no purpose in school. In my opinion, maybe we let it go on for too long. I know many of the administrators and teachers were afraid of the parents. But the parents don't always know what's best for the child's education,” he said.

Rebecca Comizio, a school psychologist at the New Canaan Country School, said instead of a mandate, an honest conversation about how hard it is to resist smartphones will help teens feel less like the decision was a punishment.

“It does require some collaboration, because if you don’t have enough student buy-in or parent buy-in, if it’s only one group of stakeholders that thinks this is a great idea, that’s gonna cause a lot of other ripple effect problems,” Comizio said. Phones make it harder to focus and delay gratification, Comizio said, which are skills that kids are still trying to master.

But Comizio said phones are also where their social lives exist, another huge part of what it means to be a teen.

“They have all kinds of actual needs that they have to fulfill that are related to this issue and that deserve respect. But then again, there are ways in which kids fulfill needs that are just not helpful, and we would like them to not practice those unhelpful methods.”

She worries that phones can be one of those unhelpful things that could keep kids from learning more healthy coping mechanisms.

After the isolation of the past two years, board of education officials say they hope students can turn away from their phones, and towards school social workers to get support.

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