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As Pittsburgh schools enact tougher rules on phones, students and parents push back

Students walk through a high school hallway while using unlocking mechanisms to remove their cell phones from sealed bags.
Keith Srakocic
Students at the Washington Junior High School leaving classes for the day, use the unlocking mechanism to open the bags their cell phone were sealed in during the school day in Washington, Pa. Citing mental health, behavior and engagement as the impetus, many educators are updating cellphone policies, with a number turning to magnetically sealing pouches.

Note: This story mentions suicide. If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988. 

Beginning late last month, all students at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy — a STEM-focused magnet school serving students in grades 6 through 12 — have been required to drop their cellphones in locked metal boxes at the start of each day. Phones are returned to students just before dismissal.

Sixth grader Emilia and other students described the first few days of the process as a bit chaotic — long lines to get into the school building, locks teachers had to cut off.

“We have a specific number for where to put our phone in, but nobody remembers them half the time,” she said.

Emilia said she could see the logic in having such a protocol from a grown-up's perspective. More than a dozen Pittsburgh public schools introduced new measures this year to restrict cell phones in the classroom, citing a need to reduce classroom distractions and the number of phone-related disciplinary infractions.

The rollout of such protocols, however, has not been without pushback from students and parents concerned that more restrictive measures could cause more harm than help for some students.

To Emilia, such restrictive policies should apply only to students repeatedly using their phones in class, not the whole student body.

Still, as her mom, Evie Ijelu, reminds her, that’s easier said than done.

“You can’t pick and choose people,” Ijelu told her daughter. “So you have to have the same rule for everybody.”

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Pittsburgh Public Schools’ board policy on electronic devices generally prohibits students from using, displaying or turning on cellphones on school premises. Individual school-based discipline committees, however, are permitted to implement more restrictive measures at their own discretion, “so long as the school has identified a legitimate educational interest for the restriction.”

Schools serving students in 6th grade and above must also field input from parents and students on any proposed cellphone restriction, both verbally and in writing, and notify families of the determined protocol in advance.

In accordance with that, school administrators at SciTech sent out a survey to parents and students in early May detailing two potential policies: one that required students to keep their phones turned off throughout the school day, including during lunch, and another in which phones were collected.

They then opened the floor to comments at a Parent-School Community Council (PSCC) meeting on May 11. Multiple parents in attendance told WESA that no one there supported the latter policy.

Eileen Gorry, who was among the 10 or so parents present that night, said parents were sympathetic to teachers fed up with cellphones in the classroom. She said parents all want their children to learn without distractions.

But Gorry added that parents wanted more information about how much of a distraction phones were, and when during the school day students were written up for phone use.

“Other parents were questioning the data, like ‘how much of a problem is it to have cellphones in school? And is it only happening at lunch or in the hallway?’” Gorry recalled.

Parents asked these questions of SciTech principal Angelique Benjamin, who came to the school from Propel charter schools earlier this year. Benjamin told parents that the number of cellphone-related disciplinary referrals was higher than all of the other categories of referrals combined, though she failed to provide parents with further information.

WESA requested additional data, too, but the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ media liaisons failed to respond.

Making room for accommodations

There was also the issue of timing. By August, families had not received any updates as to what the phone protocol would look like during the upcoming school year. That section of SciTech’s back-to-school handbook had been left blank, stating only that a revised policy would be distributed in a separate mailing prior to the start of school.

It wasn’t until Friday, Aug. 25 that SciTech notified families that phones were to be collected daily, secured during the school day and returned to students at dismissal. School was set to begin the following Monday.

Parents like Gorry were upset.

“You just had people anxious,” she said. “Had the school and the district let students know and families know in advance, lots of people would have suddenly gotten anxious, but they might have had time to deal with the anxiety.”

Gorry said anxiety arose about not having a direct line to students in the event of an emergency — SciTech is located in Oakland, where a string of false shooting reports targeted nearby schools; or, in some cases, there was also anxiety over whether or not the school would accommodate students who use their phone to manage a disability.

Students with disabilities are entitled to reasonable accommodations to access education at the same level as their non-disabled peers, as outlined under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

“So for some students, that may require an exemption to this policy where they will be able to use their phone,” said Rachel Schlosser, a Pittsburgh-based special education advocate.

That could include students who must use their phone to monitor blood sugar, access the calculator function, or, for students experiencing suicidal thoughts, text a safe adult during the school day.

“That accommodation might be something else, like maybe we're still going to collect their phone, but we're going to provide additional adult support check-ins,” Schlosser said. “It could be that we're providing counseling to help them manage their anxiety.”

But there must be time to implement those changes in advance, Schlosser stressed. By making the policy-change announcement on a Friday, Schlosser said SciTech did not give families enough time to get in touch with school administrators to discuss how students’ needs would be met.

Upon announcing the policy, SciTech advised students with medical conditions to consult with the school’s administration regarding their phone privileges. As of Monday, however, some families said they still had yet to hear back from the school about providing an exemption, nearly three weeks into the school year.

“We always want a level-set”

At Obama Academy — another 6-12 Pittsburgh public school — administrators are giving students a few weeks to first get acclimated before requiring them to stow their phones in magnetically locked pouches.

Obama’s principal, Yalonda Colbert, said teachers have been eager to roll out the protocol, which first went into effect last school year after the administration saw an increase in cyberbullying and fights.

The school gave families a month and a half’s warning prior to the initial rollout of the pouches, supplied by the California company Yondr. Before the pouches arrived, students practiced keeping their phones away for the school day by placing them in envelopes.

Now in year two, Colbert is leading the school through a similar waiting period.

“We could have easily come back in like, ‘Here's your pouch.’ But because we know we have new students and we always want a level-set, we are going to do the same rollout,” Colbert explained.

Colbert said that way, students have time to adjust and get any accommodations in order.

Even when it’s in place, Colbert emphasized that the protocol is not foolproof — kids have been busted for trying to replace their real phones with old, broken ones, or bring into school magnets strong enough to open the pouch’s lock.

“But what it does do is it stops the kids from using the phone inappropriately,” Colbert said.

Phone-related infractions went from 90% of disciplinary referrals during the 2021-2022 school year to just 10% after the phone pouches were introduced, according to Colbert. She said that has allowed the school to monitor and address more pressing disciplinary referrals.

Students who continued to violate the policy were required to meet with teachers and administration for “restorative conversations” during which the root causes of the behavior were discussed.

Colbert said a lot of the cellphone policy violations resulted from disengagement in the classroom. She said staff worked with students to teach them how to advocate for their academic needs, and coached teachers on addressing them.

“So we're looking at that not just through the behavioral piece, but we're also looking at it through the instructional lens of [cognitive] engagement,” Colbert continued.

At other schools, students are pushing back

Allderdice High School is one of 19 schools in the district that have started or will start implementing more restrictive phone policies this year. School leaders announced in August that the school will try a similar Yondr pouch policy later this fall.

The decision to do so has faced pushback from students who fear the policy will only compound existing problems at the school.

“Arrivals and dismissals are already time consuming enough,” 12th grader Lilah George wrote in an email to WESA. “Bag checks, that already make students late to class or have to skip getting school breakfast to be on time to their classes, will have to be longer.”

George and other students authored an online petition that balked at the cost of the pouches, which, depending on school size, are priced at $15 to $30 annually per student.

To outfit each of the school’s approximately 1,400 students with a pouch, school administrators could expect to pay as much as $42,000 for a one-year subscription. Students urged Allderdice’s principal to rescind the policy and reallocate the money that would’ve gone toward purchasing the Yondr pouches to new band equipment, air conditioning installations or hiring additional social workers.

Allderdice's administrators declined to be interviewed for this story, but English teacher Jennifer Mazzocco said phone-related disruptions in the school have reached a tipping point.

“I used to be one of those people that, as a teacher, I wanted to give [students] some flexibility and teach them how to use them correctly, but it's just become just a lot more of a struggle,” Mazzocco said.

All school leaders WESA spoke to said students will still be able to get in touch with parents in the case of an emergency, and vice versa.

“I know the policies will make this a little bit trickier, but like I told the kids, if there's an emergency and you really need to use your phone, we can figure that out,” Mazzocco added.

While Mazzocco acknowledged that implementing the policy won’t be without some challenges, she said it’s worth exploring to see if it’s a good fit, both for teachers and students.

Corrected: September 14, 2023 at 6:12 AM EDT
The spelling of principal Yalonda Colbert's name has been corrected.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.