Should students’ cellphones be locked up at school? New technology is giving teachers more options.

While some Utah educators have resorted to using devices to curtail distractions and prevent cheating, others see benefits to taking a more nuanced approach.<br>

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sammi Snyder, a student in Monta Thomas' class at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, secures her cellphone in a locking pouch made by the company Yondr.

At first, Monta Thomas was just annoyed.

An administrative evaluation of her geography class at Brighton High School had noted that several boys sitting in the back of the room spent the entire period playing games on their smartphones.

But when she got dinged with the same critique in her report the very next year, well, now she was beyond annoyed — she was irate.

“All these things I already have to juggle, then getting called out for not being on top of [monitoring illicit phone usage] at the same time …” Thomas said, recalling her exasperation. “It made me mad. I was mad they were not aware enough that they should put their phones away.”

These days, she isn’t leaving it up to her students. She’s one of myriad teachers around the country using Yondr pouches — small canvas bags designed to temporarily lock away cellphones.

As each student walks into class, he or she grabs a pouch, slides the phone in, snaps the lock shut, then sets it aside. When the bell rings at period’s end, the students swipe their pouches over an unlocking station, freeing the phones.

While Yondr would not confirm how many teachers in Utah are using the devices, Thomas said she’s one of four using them at Brighton alone.

And she knows of more who’d like to join their ranks.

“There’s been a lot of interest from teachers in this school, and a lot of teacher friends of mine from other schools are interested, too,” Thomas said. “It’s a game-changer. This way, it’s on the student’s desk, but it’s out of commission.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students in Monta Thomas's classes at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights secure their phones in locking pouches made by the company Yondr. Friday April 13, 2018.

Deploying countermeasures

What exactly to do about her problem was a question the teacher didn’t have an answer to at the time.

Surely, there was some statewide policy she could adopt. Except, “All of the districts have such varying policies on cellphones,” Dwight Liddiard, executive director of the Utah Association of Elementary School Principals, wrote in an email.

OK, so, she’d just adopt the policy put in place by Canyons School District, then. Except, “The district policy is very classroom-based,” said Brighton Principal Tom Sherwood. “So it’s basically up to the teachers themselves to determine how that goes.

“Different teachers manage it in different ways,” added Sherwood, who is in his first year at Brighton but spent the previous nine as the principal at Sandy’s Jordan High School. “There’s no great one-size-fits-all solution.”

He rattled off various methods that teachers he’d overseen have used over the years, including one that was particularly inventive.

“I had a teacher at Jordan who welded a steel box together and put a padlock on it, and if he saw your cellphone out, it was going in the box,” Sherwood recalled. “It was cheap, it was simple, and it drove students nuts.”

With Thomas’ welding skills a bit rusty, though, a colleague of hers suggested an alternative. That teacher had been to a concert at which attendees had been required to put their phones in lockable pouches made by Yondr. The proprietary device meant that the phones wouldn’t have to be out of their owners’ possession, but they’d also be inaccessible until the company’s unlocking mechanisms came out at show’s end.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aydin Smith and Sammi Snyder, students in Monta Thomas' classes at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, secure their phones in locking pouches made by the company Yondr.

The other teacher had reached out to Yondr immediately afterward and been allowed to purchase a classroom set on the cheap. Thomas tried to do the same, but by that time, the word was out and the price had gone up.

“It was only when news of our concerts came out that schools put two and two together and started to reach out,” said Yondr founder Graham Dugoni.

It took Thomas a year and a half of procuring funds piecemeal to acquire enough for an entire classroom. She used two years’ worth of her small legislative stipend, then applied for a grant from the PTA to get the remaining balance.

Upon finally completing her full set about a month ago, everyone’s phone now automatically goes in a pouch at the beginning of class and doesn’t come out until the end.

“I don’t have to be constantly vigilant in keeping an eye out,” Thomas said. “Now I can focus on teaching rather than being the phone police.”

‘A big conversation’

As an assistant professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Communication, instructing mostly 18- and 19-year-olds, Avery Holton sympathizes with Thomas’ struggle to find a way to keep students constantly engaged.

But as someone who specializes in studying social media and personal identity, he also sympathizes with the students and their alleged inability not to be on their phones at every opportunity.

After all, it’s not just teenagers, is it? He noted that studies into “cellphone addiction” have shown the average person with a smartphone handles it about 100 times a day and performs some kind of action on it — opening an app, making a call, checking a message, taking a picture — about 3,000 times a day.

“If we’re using it that much, it’s that much in our lives, and then we’re asked to stop doing something that’s become that much a part of our lives, it’s like we’re having an addiction withdrawal,” Holton said. “Especially in the beginning. It’s very similar to the symptoms of a drug withdrawal.”

While Holton conceded, “The amount of use for teenagers is much, much higher — in some cases exponentially higher — than for adults,” he attributed some of that to variances in hormone and dopamine levels, noting teenage and adult bodies simply don’t react to stimuli the same way.

Even beyond that, he argued, there’s a fundamental difference in perspective to consider.

“This idea is somewhat generational. Some people didn’t necessarily grow up with these, so they see all the benefits, but also the distractions,” Holton said. “But you have to remember that for [young people] who grew up with these, cellphones are embedded with them. Is something that’s embedded truly an addiction?”

Sherwood, meanwhile, sees a certain level of hypocrisy in adults making sweeping criticisms of kids these days always being on their phones.

“This is a big conversation. Our technology is moving faster than our humanity. In the past, there was always a social agreement about manners, and I don’t think we’ve developed a courtesy system about cellphones,” Sherwood said. “It’s hard to teach digital literacy and manners when there isn’t a standard. People will reply to an email midconversation. People will check Facebook while they’re driving. It really is a 21st-century problem that hasn’t been addressed — not just by schools, but by society at large.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students in Monta Thomas' classes at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights secure their phones in locking pouches made by the company Yondr.

Dugoni very much agrees with that sentiment but would add that the existence of his product is perhaps an indication that our collective ethos, while still acknowledging cellphones’ usefulness, has started to push back against their omnipresence.

“With Yondr, we’re saying, ‘Here are a few places where it’s healthy to be disconnected for a little while,’” Dugoni said. “We hear from dentist’s offices, we do a lot of weddings — a lot of random places where people just want you to put your phone away for a while.”

Changing times and lingering issues

A school is just such a place, if not a particularly random one. It goes without saying, Sherwood said, that “phones make cheating a big problem. There are apps now where you can take a picture of a math question and get the answer.”

Products such as Yondr pouches certainly could help avoid cheating. They also hold another tangential benefit for teachers: “Cellphones are so expensive now,” Thomas said, that “I don’t want to have it and be responsible for it.”

“Teachers have the right to take cellphones,” Sherwood agreed, “but they don’t want the financial liability.“

So then, it’s settled — Yondr pouches for every classroom!

Which sounds like a fine idea, if not for its total impracticality. Utah, after all, is not exactly known for its education-funding largesse.

Thomas’ set of 40 pouches ran $15 apiece, plus she shelled out $50 each for two unlocking stations, and another $10 for a bag in which to store everything. That’s $710 just for her class — not including the shipping and handling. Furthermore, Yondr has since discontinued the practice of selling to individual classrooms and will now rent the pouches only on a schoolwide basis.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Calvin Bell and Robert Ketchum, students in Monta Thomas' classes at Brighton High School in Cottonwood Heights, work with their cellphones locked away in pouches made by the company Yondr.

Sherwood doesn’t need an app to do the problematic math.

“Is it a priority when you have limited resources? If they’re $15 each and I have 2,000 kids [at Brighton], that’s $30,000. Is that the best use of $30,000?” he asked rhetorically. “If I use that money on Yondr pouches, I can’t use it for an extra guidance counselor, or to go to a teacher’s salary, or for three part-time teachers’ aides.”

The principal sees one other impediment, as well — namely, he doesn’t subscribe to a blanket all-phones-in-schools-are-bad worldview.

“What’s appropriate in one class might not be in another,” he said. “I see benefits to restricting their use, but also benefits to involving them in some ways. It’s really hard to draw a line in the sand.”

If this past decade as a school administrator has taught him anything, he said, it’s that there must be some room for nuance.

“Anecdotally, it’s obviously a problem — you see kids on their phones all the time. But then again, you can’t say kids aren’t smarter,” Sherwood said. “I don’t see our test scores going down even though everyone has a cellphone.

“This is a really gray area right now in schools. We’re trying to teach students how to think critically, trying to teach them about things they can’t learn on Google,” he added. “In terms of fact-based education, it’s become harder to justify teaching kids those things, because they’re so accessible, and these phones are so ubiquitous. Is there a point to teaching the Monroe Doctrine in class now? Kids can look it up on their phones and be reading it to me in 10 seconds. So I understand [smartphones’] usefulness.”

Thomas, on the other hand, sees the usefulness of keeping a tight rein on them. And she believes her students, if they’re being honest, do, too.

“I’ve had no complaints from parents at all, and fewer than you’d think from students,” she said. “Some have even said they like it. Every time their phone buzzes, they’re just dying to see who or what it is. Once that temptation is taken away, they don’t have to worry about it. They probably wouldn’t do this on their own, but they like it.”