Beginning April 24, students at Parker Junior High School will lock up their mobile phones at the start of each academic day and won’t be able to access them until they walk out of the building.
At its March 27 meeting, the Flossmoor School District 161 Board of Education unanimously voted to implement the use of Yondr bags, a type of pouch using a lock that can only be opened with an extremely strong magnet.
“Can we make April 24 a district holiday?” said board vice president Cameron Nelson.
Students are supposed to keep electronic devices in their lockers, per district rules, but Superintendent Dana Smith said Parker staff members frequently encounter devices being used in class, at lunch and in restrooms.
“As we talk about discipline, behavior and interactions with students, many issues begin and end in a cell phone,” Smith said. “Cell phones have become a major issue. The policy is that the cell phones will remain in the lockers, but that’s not what happens in practice.”
Parents of students at Parker received a letter from the district on Friday, March 31, describing Yondr bags and how the new procedures will work.
The letter also explains that the district is using Yondr “to have some cell phone free time, to improve the safety of our community and to improve the communication and engagement between students,” said Amabel Crawford, the district’s director of learning and instruction.
Every student will receive a Yondr bag, even those who don’t bring phones to school, and label it with their name. At the start of each school day, they will either silence or power down their phone, then place it inside and lock the Yondr bag.
At the end of the day, students will touch their Yondr bag lock against magnets mounted by the exits as they walk out. Students headed to afterschool programs will also unlock their bags. The removable magnets will be unmounted and held by key staff members during the day, Crawford said.
If a student loses their bag, the school will charge $20 for a replacement. A small number of students who use their phone to monitor health conditions will be provided with a special Yondr bag that closes using a strong, “very loud” Velcro closure, Crawford said, to give them access but dissuade unnecessary opening.
The cost of the program and materials, including bags for an average of 775 students, is $15,700 for one year. Smith said the cost is substantial, and the district will pursue grant funding to try to defray some of it.
District board member Janelle Scharon, who works at a high school that has used Yondr bags for two years, said it’s important to have detailed, clear procedures about how rules related to the bags will be enforced.
Scharon said they need to consider on-the-spot practical problems, such as a phone ringing inside a locked bag during class, as well as discipline issues related to students trying to skirt the system, such as using a decoy phone.
“A rollout is huge for this product. We have to have 100% on board,” Scharon said. ”There’s a lot of operations in it. It’s not the product. It’s the routine.”
Board member Christina Popolla-Vlietstra asked if students could use a home magnet to unlock their bag. Smith said even the strongest magnet in the science department at Parker could not unlock a bag.
Board member Michael Rouse, who is a math teacher at Thornton Township District 205, said that district has used Yondr bags for a few years.
“There will always be those determined to work around the system,” Rouse said. “It’s not a perfect solution, but helps deal with some issues.”
Board members discussed potential concerns of Parker parents.
“I know there are parents who aren’t going to be happy,” Nelson said.
Scharon said taking away the ability for students to text their parents could put a burden on Parker’s main office, with increased phone traffic.
“(Parents might say) ‘That’s my gateway to them.’ And now we’ve taken that away,” Scharon said.
Smith agreed that many parents will ask about how to reach their children during the day, without the ability to text. He said the existing policy of having cell phones in lockers means those texts shouldn’t be happening anyway.
“That’s also problematic because I know for a fact that none of our parents texted us during the day,” Smith said.
Scharon referenced school shootings, and parents’ desire to know the whereabouts of their child in case of such an incident. The board discussed helping parents with instructions for installing and using a phone-locator app to help ease concerns.
Parker staff have recently implemented a zero-tolerance policy for phone use at school because the problem has become so pervasive. Students caught using their phone during the school day receive a Saturday detention, and there were 25 such students there on a recent weekend, Smith said.
He said the Yondr bags have 100% support among staff, who believe eliminating phone usage will result in better learning and school culture.
“I’m not looking at this as a punitive piece,” Smith said. “I’m looking at this as giving kids back an opportunity during the school day to exist with each other, to exist in their classroom spaces without distraction so they can focus on connection and the content they’re working on in class.”