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School Bans Students' Cellphones in Violation of De Blasio Order

By  Ben Fractenberg Eddie Small and Amy Zimmer | June 9, 2016 7:50am | Updated on June 10, 2016 7:14am

MARBLE HILL — A Bronx high school is refusing to let its students bring their cellphones inside the building — despite Mayor Bill de Blasio last year ordering schools to allow them, DNAinfo New York has learned.

At English Language Learners and International Support Preparatory (ELLIS) — one of many schools on the John F. Kennedy campus in Marble Hill  — nearly a dozen students told DNAinfo they were not allowed to bring their phones into the building.

Instead they said they have to pay $1 per day to check their phones at local bodegas — a practice that de Blasio hoped to stop when he lifted the cellphone ban last year.

"They tell you at the door you need to go back to the bodega [and check your phone],” said Rosanny Cabrera, an 18-year-old student at ELLIS, a 350-student school for new immigrants between the ages of 16 and 20.

“It's annoying we can't bring our phones,” Cabrera said on a recent afternoon as she picked up her phone from the nearby Soto Deli Market. “The other schools can."

Under the revised policy, principals were told they had to let students bring the phones into school buildings, but on a school-by-school basis they were allowed to decide how students could use them once inside.

That could mean mandating they be checked at the front desk before the start of classes and retrieved at the end of the day, or letting students keep them in their backpacks and only confiscating them for bad behavior.

Students at ELLIS said they had been allowed to carry their phones in their backpacks at the start of the school year, but a new directive was issued about December prohibiting phones once again — a policy that’s in direct violation of the chancellor's regulations.

Several other city schools began the 2015-2016 school year letting kids carry their phones in their backpacks — but changed course a few months in and implemented cellphone storage policies after the Department of Education grew concerned about cellphone-related violence and bullying, sources told DNAinfo New York.

Sources said students and educators grew concerned about issues like phone thefts or kids taking videos or posting things online that were used to bully others.

There were also concerns about kids using their phones in fight-related incidents, whether to organize a fight or videotape fights for the purpose of posting them online, sources said.

The principal of ELLIS, Norma Vega, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Department of Education declined to comment on this school’s policy as well.

Katherine Soto, of the Soto Deli Market, one of several near the JFK campus that stores phones, said she checks about 50 phones a day at her bodega. But in previous years, before the ban was lifted, the market checked, on average, about 200 phones a day.

ELLIS student Deereck Nunez, 20, said he didn't mind paying to check his phone outside of school every day.

“I don't care. I think it's better,” he said. “We can be more focused."

One of the main reasons de Blasio said he was lifting the cellphone ban for New York City’s public schools last year was to relieve the burden on low-income students at school buildings with metal detectors, who were paying bodegas or other businesses $1 a day to store their phones.

But nearly a year later, many of these students are still coughing up money — some by choice — to stash their phones before entering school, DNAinfo has found.

DeWitt Clinton High School student Joshua Gonzalez, 16, said even though his school allows students to check their phones at the front desk, he prefers to use the cellphone storage truck that’s still parked across the street.

truck at dewitt

Students still pay to check cellphones at a truck parked near DeWitt Clinton High School despite being allowed to bring and store phones inside the school. Photo: DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

The school allows students to check their phones by placing it in a bag that has their school ID number on it. They must drop off the phones no later than 8:45 a.m., students said.

Still, Gonzalez said it was more “convenient” to pay to store his phone at the truck.

He said he didn't mind the school refusing to allow phones into the classrooms and common areas, saying they were disruptive.

"A lot of kids,” he said, “were playing music in the hallways.”  

DeWitt Clinton High School student Sarah Martinez said she appreciated being able to check her mobile device at school since many students “can’t afford to pay $1 every day.”

Some schools, however, want to use the new policy as a teachable moment on how to manage cellphone use better.

At the Bronx Academy of Letters — a small middle and high school in Mott Haven — principal Brandon Cardet-Hernandez is trying to work on “character development” to help kids understand when it’s appropriate to use their phones.

“It has to be developed and modeled,” he said, noting how the school’s staff spends a great deal of time reminding kids when and where their phones can be used since they are allowed in the cafeteria and for certain class projects.

Teachers have a lot of “one-on-one” conversations and even have to have mediation with students over phones, Cardet-Hernandez acknowledged, but he believes the effort is worth it as the school prepares kids for college.

“While it would be 10 times easier to check phones, the world doesn’t do that,” he said. “The world doesn’t check your phone.”