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Peoria Public Schools plan to lock up student cell phones draws parental concerns

A look at the grey and green Yondr pouches, and the magnetic base that unlocks them in the background. The pouches also have a slot for an identification card on the back, so students can track down lost pouches easily.
Collin Schopp
A look at the grey and green Yondr pouches, and the magnetic base that unlocks them in the background. The pouches also have a slot for an identification card on the back, so students can easily track down lost pouches.

The announcement of the purchase of up to 9,200 locking cell phone pouches for Peoria Public School students has prompted a wave of comments from the community.

Last week, the district board voted unanimously to approve the purchase, putting up to $250,000 from the Education Fund toward the purchase of the pouches, as well as training and public messaging assistance from the pouch-making company Yondr.

Under the new policy, students will put their phones in the pouches at the start of the school day and snap them closed. The pouches lock when snapped and will be unlocked at the end of the day by touching the pouch to special magnetic bases placed throughout the school.

Some people approve of the idea, recalling their own school days without cell phones. Others are skeptical the pouches are really that different from current “turned off and in your locker” phone policies. Still, others are concerned about what it could mean for their children with special needs.

Elaine Phillips is one of the latter.

“I feel that [my child] having her cell phone has saved us a lot of hassle, has saved her a lot of embarrassment when it has come to, like, health problems,” she said. “And I, unfortunately, don't really trust the schools to contact me if something is wrong.”

Phillips said her daughter’s condition means she requires a carefully followed schedule during the day, and takes certain medications on some days but not others. The best way Phillips has found to handle these needs is direct contact.

“So I could bring her clothing, or I could come get her. I could help her,” Phillips said. “And so, if we were not to have her cell phone, those things wouldn’t have happened. And I don’t know what help she would have got or what bullying she would have gone through if that wasn’t an option.”

Peoria Public Schools officials, like superintendent Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, say parents should be able to get in touch with their children by going through the school’s main office.

While some of the details remain unknown, Kherat said the district has broad guidelines ready for the program, which the district will iron out at an all-principals meeting for the needs of each building on July 17.

One rule that’s already in place is “progressive discipline.” Kherat said students face escalating penalties for violating current cell phone policy, including everything from a reflective essay to in-school suspension.

“We’re going to do the very best that we can to educate everybody around the why, and then hopefully, over time, we will get buy-in,” Kherat said. “But I do anticipate that it’s not going to be 100% accepted.”

Kherat expects some initial push back in the form of increased instances of discipline and decreased attendance.

Others in the field of education expect a similar initial reaction to the policy. However, Dr. Sara Piotrowski, a coordinator for Student Teaching for History and Social Science Education at Illinois State University, sees cell-phone free policies as a net positive in the long term.

Piotrowski said getting cell phones out of the classroom is vital for both effective education and the future of the teaching profession.

“[My student teachers] come to class and they’re like: “Oh, so basically, I got a college degree to be the cell phone and AirPod police,” she said. “That is how they feel.”

Piotrowski advises between 30 and 50 student teachers per semester. Every semester, one or two schools have some sort of policy in place that bans cell phones from classrooms. Piotrowski said the difference in experiences is stark.

“They say, like, ‘yeah, they are engaged, they participate, they discuss more,’” she said. “Now, they’re not perfect right? They’re still teenagers, but their brains aren’t fully developed, they’re addicted. So when the policy is in place, [student teachers] get to do all of the other aspects that come with teaching.”

For an example of cell phones’ impact on the average classroom, Piotrowski describes a demonstration she uses in her own college classes. Students are told to leave their phone out on their desk and walk up to the board to make a tally mark anytime they receive a notification from any source.

“We filled up a board with 40 college students in an hour,” Piotrowski said. “So several of them said they went back and did that with their students. They also saw a way to be like, ‘Whoa, it’s a lot of distractions when you don’t have them off and away during the day.’”

Some parents’ concerns travel outside of the classroom.

Brandi Watson and her husband are bus drivers for District 150, and the parents of five children throughout the district.

Watson has concerns about violence and bullying, both on her bus and in the schools. She feels the money spent on the pouches would have been better spent on additional staff to provide more monitors on buses and de-escalation training.

“[Training] so it doesn’t get to that point, training on how to deal with bullying, training on kids with mental health disorders,” Watson said. “Even, I’ve got an autistic kid, his teacher has no clue how to calm him down if he’s in a meltdown.”

Phillips would like to see more occupational therapists employed by the school before expansion on their phone policies.

“Why couldn’t we have used that money to get one of those, you know?” she said. “Because we only have one. And I think that’s crazy and not only that, but why couldn’t we have used the money to maybe pay some of these lower level bus monitors or mentors, maybe pay them a living wage?”

In addition to concerns about bullying, emergency contact and other pressing needs in the district, both parents also mention the looming threat of violence in schools.

“It’s just, school shootings are becoming more prevalent,” Watson said. “With that, too, I personally would feel better if my kids had a phone to contact me, because I know the, hate to say this, I know the police don’t do a lot.”

Dr. Piotrowski acknowledges the parents’ concerns about violence in schools, but also recalls an example where cell phones were a negative.

“This past school year, something happened at my son’s school. It ended up not being anything bad, but within minutes both my child that was at that school and my kid across town at another school were both texting me that something terrible had happened,” she said. “Both of them had the wrong information and then it led to this. What it did is it did not allow the school where it happened to deal with it, instead it spread all over town on social media.”

When the district can handle communication directly, Piotrowski said, it stops the unfettered spread of rumors and avoids derailing a whole school day. Superintendent Kherat has stated some potential benefits of the program include improved student mental health and decreased bullying.

Piotrowski agrees with these points, saying students don’t have a way to easily take photographs or record other students in the classroom. In her view, a cell phone free environment provides important opportunities to build social skills.

“We’re supposed to be modeling what it’s like to participate in a democracy,” Piotrowski said. “And I think one of them is, you know, learning to talk to other people.”

Piotrowski does say the specific needs of students like Elaine Phillips' daughter need to be met. She expects the school will work with special needs students and their families to carve out a plan that works within the new policy.

Though Phillips, like Piotrowski, anticipates the district will work with her to meet her students’ needs, she still questions removing a piece of technology from students’ hands in an increasingly technology-driven and distraction filled world.

“In my job, every day, I have to manage two computers, a cell phone, a work phone and I have to learn how to manage those things and still get my tasks done,” Phillips said. “So if we’re not using our phones, or don’t have our phones or not learning how to manage media and our phones, are we really setting our kids up for success, because they’re going to have to do that as an adult, right?”

The district plans to implement the pouches as soon as possible, starting in the upcoming school year. Kherat said the schools plan to carefully track the impact of the program, covering metrics on everything from test scores, attendance and classroom engagement to frequency of use of the district’s mental health services.

This data, and time, will tell what kind of impact the new layer of cell phone policy has on the district.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.