Boston Sunday Globe

Unplugging kids from their phones

Bans during school hours in Rhode Island are so far being hailed as a success

- By Steph Machado GLOBE STAFF

CENTRAL FALLS, R.I. — Something looks a little off when you walk through the halls of Central Falls High School.

It takes a second to put your finger on it, and then it’s clear: there are hundreds of teenagers, but not one of them is looking down at a phone.

It’s a peculiar sight for anyone that spends time amongst high schoolers. And it’s the result of an experiment that launched at the city’s high school and middle school on Oct. 1, completely banning personal electronic­s from cellphones to AirPods and smartwatch­es.

“Life in this school changed forever on this day,” said Deloris Davis Grant, a longtime English and drama teacher. “Cellphones were the scourge of this building. They were such a problem.”

School cellphone bans have been taking off across the country amid efforts to reverse the death grip devices had on teens during the pandemic, when both schooling and social life were virtual. Several states have considered legislatio­n to ban phones in schools, though Rhode Island has no such measures pending currently.

Central Falls High School Principal Bob McCarthy said the school has technicall­y always had a policy prohibitin­g cellphones, but it was nearly impossible to enforce. Students were leaving class to go to the bathroom in order to take phone calls, text, or use social media. They listened to music or watched videos in class. Conflicts arose from social media or online chatter during the school day.

“Teachers were having a really difficult time,” McCarthy said.

Teachers are often loathe to remove a student’s property from their possession, even when they break the rules. Grant said many of her students have jobs outside of school and were getting calls and texts from their bosses.

“It put me in a precarious situation when they would say, ‘My boss is going to call. Is it OK if I take the phone call?’ What am I gonna say to that?” Grant said.

The decision was made to lock up the phones using pouches from Yondr, a product that may be familiar to adults who have had to use them during comedy shows or concerts. Yondr has expanded into the education space, providing a way for schools to keep phones locked up without having to remove a student’s property from their possession.

Central Falls spent $27,000 on hundreds of Yondr pouches for the high school and middle school. Students keep the pouches on them, but the phones stay locked up between classes, in the hallway, and even during lunch. At the end of the day, students unlock them with a magnetic device mounted on walls near the exits.

It’s too soon to say if the cellphone ban will improve test scores in Central Falls, an urban core district that has the lowest math and English proficienc­y rates in the state. But teachers so far report a big difference in engagement.

“The students in my classes all got higher grades,” Grant said. “I feel like they were more communicat­ive, looking me straight in the eye, talking with other students. ... I heard the chatter out in the hallways of students talking to each other, communicat­ing in a lively manner. I really enjoyed that. That’s one of the things that changed.”

When the Globe and a videograph­er from Rhode Island PBS spent a Thursday at the high school in February, students said they were initially aghast at the thought of the phone ban.

“I was like, no way I’m doing that,” said Pedro Gomez De Aza. But a few months in, he’s come around.

“It’s been good for me because putting my phone away in school has taught me to put my phone away outside of school,” Gomez De Aza said. “Before, I would just sit in a class and just be on my phone. And now, not having my phone on me has taught me to find any sort of productive thing to do.”

Kenilson Gomes Darosa also said he likes the ban, noting that his fellow students “actually talk to me” instead of just texting. But he does wish they could use the phones at lunch.

“The behavior around engaging in social media seems more and more addictive,” said Dr. Tanuja Gandhi, a child psychiatri­st at Bradley Hospital in East Providence. She hosts a podcast that has explored the use of teen social media use.

Gandhi didn’t take a stance on whether schools should ban cellphones. But she noted research is increasing­ly connecting social media use with depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in children with developing brains from age 10 to 19.

There are not enough years of data yet to show what the long-term impact of extended teen smartphone and social media use will be, Dr. Gandhi said.

“It’s become harder for children to cut down on that screen time and time spent on phones,” she said.

Not everyone sees a total phone ban as the right approach. That includes Lincoln, R.I., just one town over from Central Falls.

While phones aren’t allowed in class without a teacher’s permission, Lincoln High School explicitly allows phone use in the hallway and at lunchtime under a 2013 policy that is still in effect today.

Kevin McNamara, now the assistant superinten­dent, was principal back then and implemente­d the more-permissive policy.

“We moved to make possessing a cellphone or using a cellphone outside of class time something that we weren’t going to punish,” McNamara said. “And I think one of the things that did was it gave kids that modicum of responsibi­lity and freedom that they really value.”

Full cellphone bans “don’t model what happens in the real world,” McNamara said. “I think if you look at adults, adults need to learn to manage their cellphones, whether they’re in a workplace environmen­t” or with their families.

He’s uncomforta­ble with the idea of locking up cellphones, preferring to have students put their phones in a hanging shoe organizer in the room.

During an emergency situation like a school shooting, McNamara said, “a cellphone in the hand of a student in a classroom could provide valuable informatio­n that would be very helpful to first responders.”

McCarthy has seen that pushback to cellphone bans, but he argued that in case of a lockdown, he doesn’t necessaril­y want students texting or posting misinforma­tion on social media. Teachers have their cellphones, and there are still landlines at school. Parents also can call the school in case of an emergency.

Central Falls is on the “leading edge of the curve” with implementi­ng the Yondr pouches, McCarthy said, and other districts in Rhode Island and Massachuse­tts have reached out to them with interest.

The first school to use the system in Rhode Island was actually Nathanael Greene Middle School in Providence, where the Yondr pouches were introduced in February 2023, spokespers­on Jay Wegimont said.

Providence later expanded the program to all middle schools and two high schools, Hope High School and 360 High School.

It’s unclear if Providence will expand the ban into the other high schools in the city. The district has spent $117,000 on the locking pouches so far.

Yondr, the company that sells the pouches, told the Globe it has about 3,000 “school partners,” a number that’s expected to “grow significan­tly” next school year.

Several communitie­s — including Smithfield, Bristol-Warren, and West Warwick — have told the R.I. Associatio­n of School Committees they are looking into implementi­ng pouches. And in Massachuse­tts, the pouches are being put in place in Brockton after fights in the hallways.

In the national debate, there has also been pushback about limiting technology when it could be used as a tool for learning. But in both Central Falls and Providence, the districts provide Chromebook­s so students have access to technology for academic purposes.

McCarthy acknowledg­ed that students always will manage to figure out how to get around the rules, and that includes figuring out how to unlock the pouches. “But the pouch is almost symbolic of the notion of the habit or the expectatio­n,” he said.

And while many students will never come around to the idea that they can’t listen to music or use Snapchat during the school day, Gomez De Aza had some wise-beyond-his-years advice for his peers.

“There’s a lot more to life than just sitting on your phone,” he said. “And you’re not going to find out if you just keep scrolling.”

View the “Rhode Island PBS Weekly” segment about this story, “No Cell Phones at School?,” online at Steph Machado can be reached at Follow her @StephMacha­do.

 ?? PHOTOS BY MICHAEL JONES/RHODE ISLAND PBS ?? “The students in my classes all got higher grades,” said Deloris Davis Grant, a Central Falls High teacher. “I feel like they were more communicat­ive, looking me straight in the eye, talking with other students.”
PHOTOS BY MICHAEL JONES/RHODE ISLAND PBS “The students in my classes all got higher grades,” said Deloris Davis Grant, a Central Falls High teacher. “I feel like they were more communicat­ive, looking me straight in the eye, talking with other students.”
 ?? ?? A student places his phone inside a Yondr pouch, which has a locking device. The pouch can only be unlocked with a strong magnet.
A student places his phone inside a Yondr pouch, which has a locking device. The pouch can only be unlocked with a strong magnet.

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