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Take Note: Child's play?; Underwater mystery

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The Omaha school district has alerted teachers to be on the lookout for a new toy showing up in mathematics classes: a pocket-sized calculator that students could use to cheat on exams.

The Sega IR 7000 can organize schedules, convert currency, translate languages, and sound an alarm. It can also send messages via infrared sensors to another Sega IR 7000, allowing students to share answers.

"I was appalled by it," said Marilyn Tipp, a parent in Omaha who learned about the calculator from an ad in one of her son's magazines that touted the high-tech toy as a cheating aid.

"It puts an honest student at a disadvantage," said Ms. Tipp, who launched a letter-writing campaign last month looking for help from U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley and the National Education Association. "Kids are going to whip out their cheating machines and say, 'What's the answer to number 5?"'

But Peter Smith, the supervisor of math for the Omaha schools, said it would be very hard to use the device to transmit answers. "A teacher would have to be unconscious not to know a student was using this," he said.

In a statement issued last month, Sega of America said it did not promote the $80 electronic communicator as a cheating instrument: "It is a tool that can be used to help children with their schoolwork."

School administrators in Bay City, Mich., are harboring reservations about the accuracy of a $155,284 water bill at Garber High School.

The first instinct of local officials was to hunt for a leak, but school officials quickly realized that such a volume of water--more than 50 times the amount the district had used a year earlier--would not only bust their budget but might overwhelm a small dam.

"If there was such a leak," said Robert Winters, the superintendent of the Essexville-Hampton schools, "the building would have floated away."

In fact, the building was vacant for most of the billing period, which ran from July 1 to Oct. 1, 1994.

But local officials are not just pulling the plug on the issue. They have commissioned a task force to search for the source of the "Garber River."

And while that expedition continues, the local utility company said it will delay collecting on the watershed bill.

--Jessica Portner & Lonnie Harp

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