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July 04, 2024

Test program that would lock up students' phones at school advances in Pa. Senate's education committee

If it eventually passes, participation among schools would be voluntary and they'd receive funding to buy lockable bags to hold the devices.

Government Education
phones schools lock Allan Jung/Telegram & Gazette; USA TODAY NETWORK

The Pennsylvania Senate will consider a bill that would test a program of locking up students' phones during the school day. Participation in the program would be voluntary by school. Above is file photo from 2023 showing a high school in Massachusetts where phones get placed in lockable bags at the start of each day.

The Senate Education committee voted recently to pass a bill that would fund a test program to allow public schools to lock students' phones away during the school day.

Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster), the bill's sponsor, cited studies showing a decline in student mental health and academic performance. These trends correlate roughly with the growing popularity of smartphones and social media, and Aument believes there is a causal connection.

"I can't think of another issue I've worked on in the 14 years that I've been here that has resonated quite like this has," Aument said. "I just think it's absolutely critical that we take steps to free our kids from these devices, from the addiction to these devices, from the addiction to social media, during the school day"

The committee voted in favor of the bill on June 25. If it ultimately passes in the Senate and the House and is signed by Gov. Josh Shapiro, the bill would create a two-year test program that public schools around the state could voluntarily opt into. Students at those schools would be required to put their phones in special pouches that could only be opened by a teacher or administrator during the school day.

Participating schools would be required to track instances of bullying and violence, as well as academic performance over the course of the pilot program and report that data to  the state's school safety and security committee.

The bill directs the state to provide funding for the purchase of the lockable bags, but does not contain a specific dollar number. The bill currently has no fiscal note attached.

Only one senator on the committee, Sen. Lindsey Williams (D-Allegheny) voted against the bill, citing concerns about the legislation potentially benefiting a specific company.

Last year, NBC reported that a single company, Yondr, has made $2.5 million over 8 years selling lock bags made specifically for cellphones to state governments.

"I'm certainly open to exploring a pilot that gives schools the resources they need to address this problem locally, but am concerned that, as introduced, this bill is too narrow," Williams said.

Sen. Tim Kearney (D-Delaware) agreed with Williams that the bill was overly "prescriptive" about how students' phones should be handled, but still voted to support it.

"Certainly my intent is not to steer toward any specific provider of bags," Aument said. He added that the lock bags, however, provided the best method he was aware of to both ensure that students stay off their phones while protecting their property.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and X.