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Published in Print: March 22, 2000, as Districts Inclined To Hang Up On Students' Cellular Phones

Districts Inclined To Hang Up On Students' Cellular Phones

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The debate over whether to allow students to carry cellular phones on school grounds is intensifying: Parents want their children to have the mobile radiotelephones for safety and quick communication with home. Many administrators and teachers see them as yet another classroom disruption. And state lawmakers are being caught in the middle.

In the early 1990's, cellular phones and electronic pagers were widely associated with gang activity and drug deals—a reputation that led a number of districts to prohibit the use of such devices on school grounds, according to June Lane Arnette, the associate director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

Although cell phones have lost their unsavory associations, they nevertheless disrupt the school environment, Ms. Arnette added.

"School used to be about school, and not about making plans for after school," she said.

But while many school districts are adding cellular phones to their lists of contraband, district leaders do recognize that parents want to be able to keep in touch with their children, said Michael Wessely, the manager of the National Education Policy Network, a branch of the National School Boards Association. "Some schools are trying to get around [allowing cellular phones] by letting kids use the phone in the school's office," he said.

The increasing ubiquity of cell phones in contemporary life—people chat on them in stores, in their cars, and on the street—has made them harder to proscribe. Security concerns have also played a part in rethinking the place of cell phones in school.

Since the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado last April, when some students and teachers used their cellular phones to call their families and the police, some districts have been reconsidering their decisions to ban the devices. "It's a pretty hard call to make right now," Ms. Arnette said.

Legislation vs. Reality

In Maryland, state Delegate Jean B. Cryor, a Republican, has introduced legislation to change a law that makes it a crime for students to possess cellular phones on school campuses. A second offense under the law is punishable by a fine of up to $2,500 and a jail sentence of up to six months.

Patricia O'Neill, the president of the school board for the 130,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district, supports Ms. Cryor's bill. "I believe that the current law on cell phones has not kept up with the reality we live in," Ms. O'Neill said. "The reality is that parents are buying students cell phones for a variety of reasons, and mostly for safety."

But she added that she doesn't want to see a situation develop similar to the one portrayed in the movie "Clueless," about a high school in Beverly Hills where all the students walked down school hallways between classes chatting on their phones.

Ms. Cryor said that opponents of her bill to make cell phones legal on campus believe the legislation would lead to exactly that kind of situation. However, Ms. Cryor maintains that the bill would not allow students to use phones during school hours, only to have the phones in their possession so that they can call their parents before or after school.

Students who now carry cellular phones on school campuses "are breaking the law, even though they may not ever use the phone on school grounds," Ms. Cryor said. "This is a problem." She said that parents from her district in Potomac, Md., a well-to-do suburb of Washington, spurred her to introduce the legislation.

Similar legislation making it legal for students to carry cell phones was signed into law in Kentucky late last month. The new legislation orders districts to write policies on the student use of electronic devices such as cellular phones and beepers.

Rep. Joe Barrows, the sponsor of the initial bill that said school districts should create such policies, was urged to introduce the legislation by school board members who said that a 1990 law prohibiting beepers was being used to confiscate cellular phones, according to Rebecca Barnes, the Democrat representative's chief of staff.

Trust But Verify

"We wanted to give local districts the opportunity to develop their own policies regarding the paging devices and cell phones," Ms. Barnes said. Some districts would like to allow the devices on school campuses and some would like to restrict them, Ms. Barnes said.

Though students around the country are generally not allowed to have cellular phones at school, according to the NSBA, many districts have seen a need for administrators and staff members to be equipped with them.

Administrators in all 20 of the schools in the Lancaster, Pa., district now have cellular phones equipped with a two-way talking feature similar to a walkie-talkie, in part because of a recent donation made to the district by Nextel Communications Inc., headquartered in Reston, Va.

"They are primarily being used for safety," said Keith Pierce, the director of communications and development for the 11,500-student district. Students in the Lancaster district are allowed to possess, but not to use, cellular phones when on school grounds.

Kenneth Woo, the director of communications for the wireless division at AT&T Corp., said that the AT&T Safe Schools Program, in partnership with Ericsson Mobile Phones, has provided cellular phones and airtime free of charge to 2,000 schools across the country.

"Through research, we found that many schools have only one phone that is usually located in the principal's office," Mr. Woo said. Cellular phones make it easier for staff members in charge of safety, such as crossing guards and playground supervisors, to call for help in case of an emergency, he said.

Mr. Woo said parents have called him to inquire about buying cellular phones for their children. He said he has always advised them to check their school districts' policies first.

Vol. 19, Issue 28, Page 13

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