Cell phone policies in NYC schools highlight difficulties of implementing statewide ban.

Forest Hills High School’s cell phone policy appears straightforward on the surface: Students are prohibited from using phones on school premises and must keep them turned off throughout the day, unless a teacher permits their use for educational purposes.

However, in reality, the implementation of this policy is far more intricate.

Individual teachers establish their own guidelines, ranging from strict measures like confiscation to lenient approaches where phones are allowed unless they disrupt the class, as noted by Stephan Menasche, a senior at the 3,400-student school in Queens.

This lack of consistency leads students to push boundaries and succumb to the allure of their phones for activities like watching or creating TikToks, texting friends, or listening to music.

“There are classes where I’m not using my phone, and they’re interesting. It’s great because I don’t have to get distracted by the notifications or whatever,” mentioned Menasche. “But sometimes the classes are really boring, and I would rather be on my phone.”

Stephan Menasche, a senior at Forest Hills High School, poses for a portrait outside of his Queens school. (Image courtesy of Stephan Menasche)

Forest Hills High School is just one of numerous schools in New York City that enforced cell phone bans after the Education Department lifted the citywide ban in March 2015, giving principals the autonomy to devise their own strategies. As Governor Kathy Hochul contemplates a statewide ban on cell phones in schools, the situation in New York City showcases the complexities of such a large-scale initiative.

The survey responses on school cell phone policies unveiled a plethora of challenges. The varied policies not only differ between schools but also within school buildings, leading to confusion among students and creating a tumultuous learning environment for educators. NYC Schools Chancellor David Banks indicated that a majority of principals are advocating for a citywide mandate.

The survey highlighted the growing struggle in enforcing bans, with the omnipresence of phones among younger age groups. Storing phones can be costly, especially amid budget cuts in schools. Surprisingly, parents often emerge as the primary sources of calls and texts to their children.

If officials decide to enforce a blanket ban, the specifics could significantly impact the success of reconnecting students with their classwork.

City officials do not keep track of the number of schools with bans, and there is no uniform approach adopted by schools to restrict student access to cell phones. Some schools have opted for Yondr pouches, while others collect phones at the beginning of the day. Most schools have structured discipline policies for phone violations.

In institutions lacking formal collection systems or pouches, teachers find themselves spending substantial time confiscating, monitoring, safeguarding, and returning phones. A health teacher at a Brooklyn high school, responding to the survey, expressed disappointment in how phones were undermining efforts to build relationships with students.

Teachers often find themselves playing the roles of monitors and negotiators to ensure students part with their devices, observed a teacher, requesting anonymity for privacy reasons. The allure of phones is understandable to some critics, considering that students juggle part-time jobs or familial responsibilities. Additionally, amidst concerns of school safety, some parents feel reassured being able to reach their children at all times.

“This is a multifaceted conundrum that won’t be resolved solely through policy changes,” noted the Brooklyn health teacher. “Without a mandate accompanied by funding, personnel, education, and culturally-sensitive training, the policy remains on paper.”

Calls amplify for addressing cell phone usage in schools

Hochul’s proposition for a ban aligns with a chorus of experts and educators highlighting the inefficiencies in the current cell phone access policy in schools. Several states are contemplating school cell phone bans, following the framework established by Florida and Indiana.

Mayor Eric Adams has been raising concerns about adolescent cell phone and social media consumption, with the city’s Health Department issuing recommendations advising caregivers to delay giving children smartphones until the age of 14. New York City has also joined other jurisdictions in filing a lawsuit against major social media firms.

The national discourse surrounding the detrimental effects of cell phones and social media is gaining momentum. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University Stern School of Business and a parent of public school children, authored the book “Anxious Generation,” which has garnered significant attention. Grassroots movements, spearheaded by organizations like Moms Against Media Addiction in New York City, are gaining traction.

During a town hall in Brownsville, Brooklyn, Banks disclosed that after reading Haidt’s book, he has been consulting with principals for their insights on the issue.

“All of them have concurred, ‘I agree. I think we should eliminate phones. They are distracting and pose various challenges,’” relayed Banks. He recounted incidents where students used phones to organize altercations after school or where parents interfered by calling during class, tasking their children with errands.

Mulling over his visit to Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, Banks applauded the institution’s pouch system, with students expressing a newfound appreciation for increased interaction as a result of the policy.

“You all gave us a chance for our brains to breathe,” recollected a student sharing his experience with Banks.

A principal in Brownsville informed Banks that following the school’s morning phone collection routine, safety-related incidents saw a significant decline.

The survey results mirror Banks’ apprehensions. Teachers feel “embarrassed” as students disregard their authority in classrooms, as one respondent highlighted. Another noted how phones introduced external disturbances into an environment intended for learning, thus undermining the sanctity of education. Instances of increased cheating and plagiarism facilitated by devices were also detailed.

Revolutionary transformations a decade after NYC overturns school cell phone prohibition

A decade ago, the current landscape regarding cell phones and social media would have seemed inconceivable. When former Mayor Bill de Blasio overturned the cell phone ban in New York City schools, he cited the disparities inherent in the policy. While some students could bring phones to school and keep them in their bags, schools with metal detectors, primarily serving Black and Latino students from low-income backgrounds, faced a thriving market of carts and businesses charging students for phone storage.

At that time, parental phone calls to students were less frequent. Social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok were not as prevalent among teens, and wearable devices like AirPods were not as commonplace.

Educators noticed an immediate shift in school dynamics once cell phones entered the picture.

Anita Pinto, a speech therapist at a high school in Manhattan, recalled how students would engage in games like Uno during free periods. However, with the removal of the ban by de Blasio, such activities ceased.

“Immediately after, they were like zombies,” she remarked. The situation exacerbated following the pandemic, with students becoming accustomed to round-the-clock device usage at home.

Pinto recounted an incident where a student defied her instruction to put away their phone, resulting in a confrontation. She opted to return the phone at the end of the period to avoid further escalation.

“I gave it back,” Pinto shared. “It wasn’t worth it. You have to pick and choose your battles. Many teachers avoid confiscating phones due to the volatile reactions from students. It can escalate quickly.”

Cell phone pouches and storage solutions face challenges

There is palpable frustration among school leaders regarding phone policies. The principal of Brooklyn Collaborative Studies recently communicated to parents that some students claimed not to have phones when collected in the morning, only for phones to surface later during the day in various locations.

An astounding one-third of New York City high schools have adopted Yondr pouches for phone collection, marking a significant 100% increase from the previous year, confirmed officials from the company founded a decade ago.

“The younger generation has grown up with social media and is unfamiliar with life devoid of it,” noted Yondr founder Graham Dugoni earlier this year. Despite initial resistance from some students, they eventually appreciate the break from constant connectivity. Within a week of introducing the pouches, one school in Alabama reported a surge in book borrowing compared to the entire preceding year.

Yondr pouches are priced between $25 and $30 per student, with costs varying based on school size, as detailed by a company spokesperson. Anticipating a substantial expansion in pouch adoption in New York City and beyond, the company foresees potential price adjustments. A principal revealed that the company plans to raise prices from $20 to $30 per student in the upcoming year. Meanwhile, a Manhattan middle school is seeking financial support from the parent association, exceeding $18,000 to acquire pouches for nearly 550 students. While supportive of the initiative, a concerned parent questions the burden placed on the parent association and the potential opposition from parents.

However, the pouches do not present a foolproof solution. In addition to the financial burden, educators and parents revealed that students invest significant effort into circumventing the pouches.

“Some students feign locking their phones in the pouch. … Others sneak in a counterfeit second phone,” disclosed Rachel Fields, a mother from Queens, whose sixth grader attends Halsey Middle School, an institution that implemented pouches this year. “It’s troubling that so much energy is diverted into smuggling phones.”

Fields recently provided her son with a smartphone after he claimed to be the only child without one, feeling excluded from group chats. Although her son asserted that his Yondr pouch lock was broken, he assured her that he abides by the rules.

“I hope that’s the case,” she expressed.

A Bronx assistant principal favored Yondr pouches over phone collection, citing fewer liability concerns when students carry enclosed devices. Recalling an incident pre-Yondr where a confiscated phone went missing, leading to out-of-pocket reimbursement by the administrator.

“While Yondr isn’t flawless due to circumvention methods, it’s an improvement from constantly confiscating phones,” the assistant principal pointed out, preferring anonymity due to authorization constraints. “I no longer have to spend my day snatching phones from students.”

Amanda Rinzel, an instructor at Bronx Latin, recognized the strong attachment her students had to their phones upon returning to campus post-pandemic closures. She welcomed the deployment of Yondr pouches at her school in fall 2021.

The effectiveness of the pouches is more noticeable among middle schoolers, who tend to comply with rules and value adult approval compared to high school students who devise ways to bypass the system, as per Rinzel’s observations.

A woman with short dark hair and wearing a white t-shirt poses for a portrait in a classroom.
Amanda Rinzel teaches eighth grade and 12th grade at Bronx Latin. (Image courtesy of Amanda Rinzel)

“At my school, a teacher could spend all day playing whack-a-mole with phones; get this person to put their phone away, that one to take out their earbuds, the other one to put their phone in their backpack and leave it at their desk when they go to the bathroom,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

As a parent of a fifth grader and high school student herself, Rinzel scrutinized cell phone policies while exploring middle schools. Recognizing her older child’s need for a device during the commute to the Professional Performing Arts School in Manhattan, she opted for a device called Pinwheel. Her son can communicate with friends and utilize parent-approved apps like Google Maps and Duolingo, with no access to browsers or social media. Phones are collected in the morning and returned at dismissal at his school.

The phone collection process may be more manageable at Rinzel’s son’s school, catering to approximately 500 students compared to Forest Hills, Menasche’s school, which accommodates seven times that number and operates on split sessions to alleviate overcrowding.

Menasche expressed reluctance to surrender his phone at the beginning of the day, citing concerns about emergency communication being smoother through his mom texting him directly rather than contacting the school. He also criticized the current lax enforcement of the no-phone policy.

Michael Elsen-Rooney contributed.

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