RSF School considers using pouch that locks up student phones during school day

Rancho Santa Fe School District
(Staff photo)

The Rancho Santa Fe School District is looking for a way to keep middle school students off of their cell phones when they are at school. The district is exploring a potential partnership with Yondr, a company that produces a pouch that effectively locks up students’ devices during the school day.

Once their phones are inside, the neoprene pouches are locked and stay with the student. The pouches can only be unlocked by using a large magnet unit at the end of the school day.

RSF School Superintendent Donna Tripi brought the idea to the board at its July 15 meeting.

“Our administrators and teachers have been grappling with cell phone use and misuse for many years and feel like it is the number one impediment to our students learning and social and emotional growth,” Tripi said.

While the school’s policy and family guide prohibit phones being out during class and staff reminds students about appropriate phone use at every behavior assembly, Tripi said the abuses are “pervasive” and teachers and administrators are spending a lot of time trying to manage the behavior, unsuccessfully.

Tripi has seen and heard of inappropriate cell phone uses such as students calling parents to come pick them up without going through the nurse or front office, students calling parents to bring things left at home to get out of facing consequences, and students texting parents and one another throughout the day. Phones vibrate during class and students are distracted—it’s too tempting not to check their texts or social media notifications. Tripi said students use phones to cheat on tests and, in some cases, to film teachers and students and then use the footage in unkind ways.

While the school has filters on school-issued student iPads, there are none on student cell phones—they can’t control the content that students are looking at during recess or in the bathroom, and sometimes sharing with their friends.

“We do think it is a problem,” Tripi said.

The Yondr concept’s roots are in the entertainment industry, providing musicians and comedians not just to protect a show’s proprietary content but to better connect with their audiences and not be looking out at a sea of screens. Comedian Dave Chappelle is one of the company’s biggest investors, according to Mike O’Connell, a partnerships manager for Yondr.

Increasingly, the product has been used in schools. O’Connell said about 1,000 schools so far have implemented the pouches.

“We, at Yondr, believe that there are certain spaces that should be phone-free,” O’Connell said. “Students, especially in middle school, need a break from this device… What (Yondr) is is a tool to help reimagine our relationship with technology, with our phones.”

Tripi agreed: “I think it’s retraining kids to be more engaged in school and more engaged with each other.”

Tripi said she has heard some initial concerns from parents about students not having access to their phones during an emergency or lockdown.

“I would argue that taking out a cell phone during an emergency would be the wrong thing to do for many reasons,” Tripi said, noting that if students have their phones out they might not be paying attention to instructions or their surroundings and, in the case of lockdown, they may cause noise when staff is trying to keep students quiet.

An action item for the $6,283 purchase of pouches and base units was on the agenda on July 15 but it was pushed to a discussion-only item. RSF School Board President Kali Kim said she would like to get more parent input before moving ahead –she sees it as a potentially six-month-long process that includes gathering feedback in August or September and the board voting on the expenditure in the fall for possible implementation in January 2022.

“It’s a sensitive topic to a lot of parents. I would rather take it slowly and implement it with confidence and buy-in of students and parents,” Kim said. “If we don’t have buy-in at home and we just try to enforce this, I can’t see it going well.”

The board’s opinions on Yondr were mixed.

Trustee Annette Ross said the board all agrees that it is a real problem but she was concerned that it felt like a punishment, to take away student phones. Trustee Rosemarie Rohatgi said she would like to see better enforcement as far as cell phone use on campus but said she wasn’t sure if Yondr was the right solution.

Trustee John Tree was the most strongly opposed.

“I believe all of the problems are very valid but I believe this solution is very draconian and heavy-handed…I just think it’s wholly inappropriate,” Tree said. “The whole concept is wrong, it’s not what I would like to teach my kids about personal responsibility.”

Vice President Jee Manghani said any way they deal with the problem will seem draconian to the students— whether using the Yondr pouches, the method used now of confiscating phones when they are used inappropriately or taking the step of completely banning cell phones on campus. He was looking forward to hearing parent input as they determine the best call.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” Manghani said. “I think to me, parent buy-in is important.”