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School rule: Students lock up cellphones for study time

Steve Zhou, 18, a senior at The Stony

Steve Zhou, 18, a senior at The Stony Brook School, gets ready for a study session Tuesday by locking his cellphone in a special pouch, an effort by the school to help students concentrate on their coursework. Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

Separating teenagers from their cellphones — a difficult thing, as many parents can attest — is a weeknight reality at a prep-school campus on Long Island's North Shore.  

On Monday through Thursday nights, student boarders at The Stony Brook School lock up their cellphones in special neoprene pouches during study hours from 7:45 to 9:45 p.m. The 96-year-old private academy also prohibits use of the phones during lunches, dinners and twice-a-week chapel services. 

The partial phone ban, which started with the opening of classes in late August, is designed to help students concentrate on work that includes rigorous college-level courses such as Advanced Placement Latin. 

Another goal, as Stony Brook School administrators informed parents in a recent letter, is to rebuild connections so "the distractions of social media, gaming apps and feeds are replaced with authentic conversations, social maturity and meaningful relationships." 

Most students, following some initial shock over the new policy, appear to be receptive. 

"First reaction, I hated it. Second reaction, I loved it," said Isebrand Kaldewei, 15, a sophomore from the city of Muenster  in northwest Germany.

Some of the students' parents have begun wondering if cellphone quarantines could work in their homes.

"My husband said, 'Where can we get five of those?' " said Donna O'Neill of North Stamford, Connecticut, referring to the gray-and-green pouches with magnetic locks that are used to swaddle the electronic devices. 

The O'Neills' two daughters, one a junior, the other a freshman, live on campus. A younger son lives at home. 

The Stony Brook School is an institution that takes both scholarship and character-building seriously. It was founded in 1922 by Presbyterian ministers and enrolls 402 students in grades seven through 12, divided about equally between boarders and those who live off-campus. Students come from 25 countries and a dozen states, with the largest number being New Yorkers.  

The school, which today remains Christian but is nondenominational, occupies a 55-acre campus lined with neo-Georgian brick buildings. It is not affiliated with the nearby state university of the same name, although its students have access to some university research programs.  

Dustin Mones, the school's director of student life, spent the first week of classes visiting dorm rooms and checking on whether students were showing any ill effects from smartphone withdrawal. Behavioral scientists have noted that too much time spent on websites checking for "followers," "friends," "likes" and other social-media reinforcements can prove addictive. 

What Mones found was that students generally seemed to feel they were getting more work done without electronic distractions.   

"People all have cellphones, and, as educators, I think we're all catching up," Mones said. "I think we're saying cellphones are not the enemy here, but anything not used in moderation is likely to become a vice."

Still, the dorms had their share of adventurous types who wanted to see if they could beat the ban — perhaps by squirreling away an extra phone in a suitcase during room inspections. 

"At first, I tried really clever ways to unlock the pouch without anybody noticing," said one eighth-grader, Mekhi Ulysse, 13, who is from Salem, Massachusetts. "But after a while, I noticed that, not only is it really hard to unlock the pouch, but also it was easier to concentrate on my homework." 

A senior, Steve Zhou, 18, who is the student prefect, or supervisor, of his dormitory, agreed that shutting down phones prevents distractions. He added, however, that it reduces time that classmates can spend in phone conferences on their studies, which often are useful.

"I think we should find some way to check our progress," added Zhou, who is from Shanghai, China.   

The lockdown devices, known as Yondr pouches or cases, are leased and sold by a company of the same name, headquartered in San Francisco. The portable bags have been in use since 2014, and researchers who have studied their effects conclude that they provide a way of shutting down phones temporarily while leaving them in their owners' possession. 

That, researchers say, is one advantage over other approaches by many schools — for example, collecting cellphones in baskets or storing them in lockers at certain hours of the day.   

Yondr said more than 1 million cases now are being used in schools, hotels, courthouses, offices, cafes and other sites in the United States and abroad. The devices also have proved popular with some concert singers and nightclub comedians, who arrange for customers' cellphones to be bagged so that performances can't be videotaped and placed on YouTube or other internet sites.

Yondr cases are used in more than 1,000 schools worldwide, including about a hundred in New York City, the company said. Listed customers in the region include the Brooklyn School for Math and Research, Unity Preparatory Charter School, also in Brooklyn, and The Browning School in Manhattan. 

Lease prices for schools typically range between $15 and $30 per student annually, but can vary depending on school size and other factors, the company said. 

Graham Dugoni, the entrepreneur who founded Yondr, views his lockdown devices as protectors of personal privacy and guardrails against surreptitious recording and videotaping.

"It's refreshing for people to get in a space where they can relax and know that what they do stays there," Dugoni said in an interview. 

At The Stony Brook School, students create their own phone-free spaces as night falls. They slip their smartphones into the form-fitting pouches, then snap them shut with magnetic locks. Two hours later, students unlock their phones by brushing the pouches against a disk-shaped magnetic key provided by an adult proctor. 

The school's head administrator, Joshua Crane, described the lockdowns as a sort of liberation, providing freedom from distraction.

"The world will continue to spin if they don't have their phones," Crane said. 

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