Last year ended in controversy for Bullard High School, after a racist photo taken in the school’s weight room was shared widely on social media. Now, with the announcement of the school’s new cell phone ban, another controversy is brewing.
The policy will require students to lock away their phones in magnetically sealing pouches made by the company Yondr, preventing students from accessing phones during the day until an employee unlocks the pouches for them.
A Friday evening news release from Fresno Unified said the implementation timeline still has “yet to be determined but is intended to happen during the 2022/2023 school year.” A back-to-school packet from Bullard, reviewed by the Education Lab, indicates Sept. 1 as the target for the first day the pouches will be used.
District leaders, including Bullard principal Armen Torigian, have stressed that the goal of this policy is to minimize distractions and encourage students to socialize — and that it has nothing to do with the racist photo taken at Bullard earlier this year. Students aren’t so sure.
Bullard sophomore Eryn Williams, 14, said there are some staff at the school who genuinely believe the ban will help students be more attentive in class. But there are also staff on Bullard’s campus who will take this policy as a sign that “they can get away with a lot more than they could have before,” she said.
The weight room photo, which captured a student wearing what appeared to be a makeshift Ku Klux Klan hood, and several other racist incidents on Bullard’s campus in recent years were documented with cell phones. By taking phones away, Williams questions how students will continue to hold students and staff accountable for causing harm.
That’s why Williams started a Change.org petition, which has garnered over 2,700 signatures since it launched a week ago, demanding phones stay accessible to students at school.
Bullard senior Audrey Agbayani, 16, is one of several students who signed Williams’ petition. She shares her classmate’s concerns about how hateful incidents on campus will be handled if students can’t use phones to provide evidence of them.
“I think this policy widely ignores the fact that the only time these racist incidents are addressed is either A: if someone comes with proof via video,” she said, “or B: it goes viral on the internet.”
Bullard principal Torigian did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding students’ concerns with the ban. In Friday’s news release, the district continued to deny that racist behavior in Fresno Unified inspired the policy.
“Bullard continues to have security footage available in the event of inappropriate or racist behavior committed on campus, as well as Campus Safety Assistants and a School Resource Officer to prevent, manage, and respond to inappropriate and racist behavior,” the release said. “It is also important to note that our board policy and administrative regulation prohibit anyone from taking pictures or videos of others without their permission in classrooms or any area with a reasonable expectation of privacy.”
District spokesperson Nikki Henry also noted in an email to the Ed Lab that Bullard’s new policy “would not have prevented the May photo as the students involved took the picture after school in the weight room.”
Bullard cell phone ban divides students, parents
Bullard sophomore Joziah Keyes, 14, told the Ed Lab that in addition to “taking away our voices,” preventing students from accessing phones in an emergency — such as a school shooting — should be unthinkable nowadays.
“If they take our phones away, we’re losing our only communication with our family during school,” he said. “(My parents) shouldn’t have to go through the office to, you know, talk to me.”
However, some parents in the district feel differently about the need to communicate with their students during the school day.
Candace Diel, parent of a junior at Bullard, told the Ed Lab that she trusts the school to communicate effectively with parents and students in the event of an emergency, whether that’s through classroom phones or the teacher.
The district said Friday that in an emergency, students may damage or destroy pouches in order to reach their phones, “at no cost to the student.”
“In addition, a Bullard staff member will be able to unlock the students’ phones when they have reached a place of safety,” the release said.
While she will miss being able to communicate directly with her daughter throughout the day, Diel said she believes phones have created a “breakdown” of communication among young people especially and that it’s time schools address it.
“I understand parents being nervous,” she said. “But I really do believe that at the end of the day, if what we’re supposed to be focusing on is their education and them as human beings, then this is a big win for everybody.”
Fresno Unified parent Marycela Pacheco echoed this sentiment at Wednesday night’s school board meeting, saying she believes students’ grades are bound to improve if they’re not distracted by their phones.
Bullard-area trustee Terry Slatic has also backed the policy, citing both student achievement and improving teachers’ ability to manage their classroom as key reasons.
Fresno school’s phone policy will cost nearly $45,000
It remains unclear whether teachers are fully on board with the phone policy.
Lauren Beal, a teacher at Fresno Unified’s Edison High School, told the Ed Lab in July that she was concerned to hear another FUSD high school would consider such a ban. She said banning cell phones robs educators of the opportunity to teach their students to use their phones appropriately and prepare them for life after high school, where technology remains ubiquitous.
Some students are also questioning whether this was the best use of funds for the district, especially “when teachers are having to buy their own pencils” and pay for other supplies out of pocket, said Williams, who started the online petition.
The pouches are $15 a pop — so they cost Bullard a total of $44,908, including shipping and taxes, according to Henry of FUSD.
“That’s a lot of money wasted. That’s really sad to me,” Williams said.
Agbayani, the Bullard senior, said that so far, communication from Bullard surrounding the new policy has felt like the “bare minimum.”
She’s hoping school leaders will provide clarification on medical exceptions to the policy for students who need their phones for medical purposes and answer other questions moving forward.
For the time being, the district said that compliance is required and that families will have to work with Bullard’s administration if they have issues with the policy.
“Students who violate the cell phone free policy will be subject to disciplinary action as allowed by education code,” the district’s release said.
Bullard principal Torigian has a family meeting scheduled next Thursday, Aug. 18 to address additional questions. FUSD said the meeting is for “Bullard parents/guardians and will not be open to the media.”
The Education Lab is a local journalism initiative that highlights education issues critical to the advancement of the San Joaquin Valley. It is funded by donors. Learn about The Bee’s Education Lab at its website.