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Akron will pilot cellphone ban at several schools as a school violence solution

Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media

The Akron Board of Education voted this week to pilot two studies at several schools in an attempt to address safety and behavioral issues, one of which would require that students’ cellphones be locked away for the day.

The board approved about $43,000 to lease Yondr bags, like those used at some high-profile entertainment events, that magnetically seal students’ phones inside the bags. The effectiveness would be studied for several months at Ellett, East and Buchtel high schools, according to a joint presentation given Monday by the Akron Education Association and members of the district's administration.

The pilot is expected to be implemented beginning later this month. Students at those schools will be asked to put their phones into the bags when they arrive at school. One bag will be assigned to each student. If a student forgets the bag or they damage the bag, schools' central offices will keep their phones instead for the duration of the school day.

Teachers and staff have reported serious incidents of misbehavior and fightsspurred by cellphone use, issues which have loomed large in recent months and in negotiations between the district and teachers which nearly led to a strike earlier this year.

Pat Shipe, president of the Akron Education Association, said district administration and the teachers union are working together to consider and roll out a number of initiatives to curb these issues. She and the other presenters noted they visited Dayton schools - which have rolled out use of the Yondr bags to all high schools - and were pleased with the results so far. According to the results of surveys compiled by Yondr and presented by the team, of 900 schools that have implemented similar programs, 65% reported improved academic performance, 74% saw an improvement in student behavior and 83% saw an improvement in classroom engagement.

"So the yonder bags are one tool that we're going to use, which we think will be bring an enormous amount of safety into our buildings, particularly our secondary buildings. I believe it's a game changer in a positive way," Shipe said. "And we spoke to enough students and teachers and administrators in other districts that echo that, that believe that it's made a huge positive impact on their district."

Board President Derrick Hall said he was in favor of the initiative, noting a significant body of research suggesting that cellphone usage causes a loss of instructional time, while excessive cellphone usage causes a host of other problems for young people.

Board member N.J. Akbar voted against the proposal. He said it could help but noted it won’t address the broader issues facing students; he also said some students have requested that the district try other things before moving to ban all cellphone access.

"We cannot lock up their cell phones and think that bullying on Facebook and Instagram and all of those things are going to cease," he said.

Many parents expressed concerns about the proposal in Facebook comments in response to news of the district piloting the study, with some parents noting it takes the district too long to let them know when something is wrong at school. They worried about not having easy, quick contact with their children in the event of lockdowns or other problems.

"My son will always have his phone as he has had to message me about a student hitting him and verbally assaulting him," one parent wrote. "I always have to call the school."

In other news, the board also approved a roughly $15,000 pilot in which staff members would wear Centegix crisis alert devices that will allow them to issue a safety alert to administrators after pressing a button on the necklace-like device three times. The device, when alerting, would give administrators and safety team members the exact location of the staffer.

That pilot will go into effect at Garfield and Innes high schools later this month.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.