Lock the phone in a pouch? Students, staff debate a school’s bid to curb distractions

The main entrance to Obama Academy, a Pittsburgh Public Schools 6-12 school in East Liberty. Students are required to put their cell phones in Yondr pouches upon entering the building. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource)
Obama Academy has joined a growing number of schools that are using Yondr pouches to separate students from phones, but some worry about safety implications.

When students enter Obama Academy in East Liberty, they place their turned-off phones in pouches and press a green button to lock them. They hold on to the pouch until the end of the school day, when it can be opened by magnets faculty possess. 

Obama Principal Yolanda Colbert implemented the pouches, made by the California company Yondr, to create a phone-free environment. The pouches are an increasingly popular means of addressing the tension between educators’ desire for teens’ attention and the constant draw of cell phones.

Other school districts such as Penn Hills have also implemented Yondr pouches, and across the state, the Philadelphia School District is spending $5 million so that it can have students there lock up their phones. 

At Obama, students see pluses and minuses in the new policy. 

“To not be able to have my phone all day just felt very constricting and like maybe even my safety would be compromised,” said Sydney Pellegrino, an Obama student who sits on the district-wide Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council, which advocates for changes PPS students want to see in the schools.

Faced with cyberbullying, Obama Academy turns to pouches

Colbert said that school-wide data from the 2021-22 academic year indicated the need to revitalize the academic environment. 

“The data was alarming in terms of incidents that involved social media, text messages, academics, behavior, attendance and parent complaints and concerns for student safety,” she said. The data also showed that 90% of students were not using their phones for academic purposes.

Students had been in remote schooling from April 2020 to May 2021. They had not learned how to speak to one another, navigate conflict or develop interpersonal skills and instead turned to social media, said Colbert.  

The administration saw increased cyberbullying, and kids becoming anxious and not wanting to come to school, according to Colbert. Staff and administration had talked for some time about new restrictions on phone use, according to Justin Collinger, a chemistry teacher at Obama. 

Obama Academy saw a potential solution in the Yondr pouches. 

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