Two people present a powerpoint to a group at DeLaSalle Education Center
Erin Wilmore (front left), the principal resident and science teacher at DeLaSalle Education Center, and Sean Stalling (center), the high school’s executive director, discuss a new cellphone policy at a town hall Jan. 24. Danielle Holcomb (right) is a DeLaSalle parent who supports the policy. (Maria Benevento/The Beacon)

A Kansas City charter high school has decided that preventing cellphone use in school is the key to reclaiming learning time.

Sean Stalling, executive director of DeLaSalle Education Center, said students’ use of electronic devices has detracted from teaching, contributed to bullying and fights and gotten students kicked out of internships. 

“We understand that this is not a happy moment for kids, but at the same time some kids don’t like to eat vegetables, right?” Stalling said at a Jan. 24 town hall about the new policy. “So we need to have that instructional time back.”

The policy will take effect Feb. 6. 

Instead of merely forbidding students from having their phones out during class, the school plans to rely on Yondr phone pouches, a technology designed to create “phone-free spaces” by using portable containers that lock electronics inside and only unlock with a special device. 

Danielle Holcomb, a parent of a DeLaSalle student, said she supports the change. 

Holcomb is a brand ambassador for Yondr, but said she wasn’t involved in connecting the school with the company and didn’t know about the arrangement until the general announcement. 

“My biggest reason why I support no cellphones is of course the distraction,” Holcomb said. “… I couldn’t imagine putting all this time in, my own personal time at home, just to prepare for these classes, and then nobody would be paying attention to me. They’re on their cellphones.”

The purpose of the DeLaSalle cellphone policy

Stalling said DeLaSalle’s three main departments — instructional leadership, Kairos (climate and culture) and mental health — all recognized the benefits of restricting phone use. But instruction was at the core of the decision. 

Erin Wilmore, principal resident and science teacher at DeLaSalle, said the instructional leadership team considered barriers to successfully using all 50 minutes of each class period. 

“Even if I plan the most engaging lesson, I work really hard, I know what I’m talking about, cellphones are a big rock for me,” Wilmore said. 

A survey sent to teachers confirmed that 100% of them thought cellphones detracted from the learning environment, Wilmore said at the town hall.

DeLaSalle, a high school of about 210 students on Troost Avenue in midtown Kansas City, specializes in helping students who have gotten off track at other schools and may need to catch up on credits to graduate in time — though not all students fall into that category. 

Cellphones “created an environment where students were distracted from what they needed to know,” Stalling said. “And you have kids that are not as prepared as you want them to be that are coming in grade levels behind, credit deficient. You’ve got to get them undistracted, and you’ve got to get them on track.” 

Cellphones also distract from outside experiences like internships and college visits, he said. Two students lost internships because they were on their phones too much. 

Also, some of the biggest incidents and fights that happened in school related to bullying that started with social media and texting during school. 

In one incident, a student who was already in trouble for an altercation doubled down on the bullying through a Snapchat video as he sat in the office waiting to be picked up by a parent, Stalling said. 

And when students use their phones to record fights, Stalling said that raises tensions, risks causing more violence and creates a negative perception of the school. 

Anticipating problems with the cellphone policy at DeLaSalle

DeLaSalle is already thinking through objections, challenges and exceptions to the policy. 

Stalling said the COVID-19 pandemic made students “dependent” on their devices for communication and accustomed to using them freely during virtual learning. 

That’s a further motivation for the policy and a reason to enforce it with compassion and grace, he said. 

“We don’t want to hurt our kids and do damage; we really care about our students,” Stalling said. “But we really need to pull back and get that instructional time back because they were in a pandemic for two years.” 

To ensure students put their devices in locked pouches, the high school will make it part of the process when they enter school. 

Students already enter through metal detectors, which flag electronics, and DeLaSalle has recently started more thorough bag checks. 

Students can keep the Yondr pouch issued to them or leave it at school if they’re worried about losing it — or misusing it — at home. They will keep the pouches with them during school and use unlocking stations to release their possessions at the end of the day.

Wilmore said she hopes students will be more comfortable when they realize they aren’t handing the devices over to the school. 

DeLaSalle is distributing contact information for multiple staff members whom parents can reach out to if needed instead of contacting students directly. 

Holcomb, the parent, said that when she tried to consider all angles of the policy, she asked her son why he thought it would be important to have access to his phone at school. 

He suggested he could use it to contact her during an emergency such as a school shooting. Holcomb didn’t find that convincing. 

“If you’re in an emergency, the last thing you need to be is on your cellphone,” she said. “You need to be alert to what’s going on around you.” 

The school expects students to evade the new rules and has an escalating set of consequences if students damage the Yondr pouches or are caught with phones. 

But Stalling said the policy isn’t meant to be “punitive” or to cause conflict. To emphasize that, the school is also rolling out a reward system to encourage good behavior. 

If a teacher sees a student with a phone, they’re supposed to discreetly contact an administrator who will come speak with the student. 

“We don’t want this to become a classroom confrontation, so it is not the teacher’s job to fight with the student about putting your phone up,” Stalling said. “It’s more work for the administration, but it’s less work for the teacher, which means there’s more instructional time.”

If a student violates the policy multiple times, DeLaSalle will confiscate their phone during school for one or more days rather than letting them keep possession of the Yondr pouch. 

DeLaSalle will also work with any students who need an exception to the policy, such as using a cellphone for medical reasons. 

How other schools handle cellphones

Stalling said DeLaSalle looked at other schools — including locally — when considering the policy. 

Many haven’t gone as far.

For example, according to a report from KCTV5, North Kansas City Public Schools’ move to “crack down” on cellphone use in schools entails forbidding phones during class — and outlines consequences. Students can still have phones and use them during passing periods and lunch.

The Kansas City Public Schools 2022-23 Student Code of Conduct says students can typically use phones only before and after school, but doesn’t say anything about regularly locking up phones. 

Sarah Rotert, a parent of three high school students at Liberty Public Schools, said the district prohibits cellphones for younger students but not for high school students. 

The rationale she’s heard is that teachers would lose instruction time enforcing a ban, and that older students have to learn how to adjust to adult responsibilities in a world with cellphones. 

She isn’t a strong advocate for prohibiting cellphones in schools because she doesn’t see cellphones as the root cause of problems. 

“I think they have bigger fish to fry,” she said.

But others are moving in the same direction as DeLaSalle. 

In particular, Stalling said he spoke with Hogan Preparatory Academy, another local charter school that recently made the move to a phone-free policy, in part out of concern that phones contributed to unsafe incidents.

A state commission has put Hogan Prep on probation, which means it’s at risk of closing, and temporarily shut down the high school earlier this school year over safety concerns. 

Tiffany Price, a substitute teacher and parent of a Hogan graduate and three younger children at Brookside Charter School, said she doesn’t have a problem with students using cellphones for teacher-directed activities. 

But she thinks phones become a concern if they contribute to safety issues or distract students and said she feels “violated” by the possibility that students could record or photograph her during lessons. 

“If you are sitting up there on your phone, and you’re doing something other than instruction, without the teacher, you know, then it’s an issue because what are you doing? What is so important on that cellphone to where you cannot sit here and pay attention?”

Stalling said he’s personally been to events, such as TED talks and concerts, where he wasn’t able to have his phone. 

“It’s uncomfortable in the moment, but what it also does is make me pay attention to what somebody has delivered,” he said. “… I’m prepared to take that chance on what we’re doing. It’s the most restrictive we can do, so we can now always figure out how to walk things back.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.