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Published in Print: October 31, 2001, as Cellphone Bans Get a Second Look

Cellphone Bans Get a Second Look

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Gregory Vallone, the principal of James Monroe High School in North Hills, Calif., knew he was letting a student break the law when he told the girl to put her cellular telephone in her backpack. Like many other states, California prohibits students from carrying cellphones on school property.

But Mr. Vallone has some problems with that law. To begin with, he estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of his 4,600 students carry the phones, and he says he couldn't possibly confiscate them all. And the two public phones in the building are hardly enough to serve so many students.

So the principal lets the teenagers conceal cellphones in their backpacks and advises them to keep the handheld devices turned off except in an emergency.

Still, it troubles Mr. Vallone that he is sending the message that it's OK to break the law as long as nobody notices. That's why he and some of his students are lobbying the California legislature to repeal the cellphone ban and allow local schools to craft their own cellphone policies, a move taken this year by state lawmakers in Maryland and Oklahoma.

Students at Monroe High say the ban is unrealistic. The law was passed "back in the day when pagers and items of that nature were posing a threat in terms of drug trafficking and sales," said Jonathan Fantini, a senior at the school and the president of the student body. Now that so many people own cellphones, he said, the law has "reached a point where it is ridiculous."

But not all principals or policymakers agree with Mr. Fantini and Mr. Vallone.

For instance, in Florida, state law prohibits students from carrying pagers on school property but there is no prohibition against cellphones. Recently, though, officials of the Pensacola district clamped down on students' possession of cellphones because the district had received 70 bomb threats called in with such phones this school year, according to Ronnie Arnold, a spokesman for the 45,300-student district. Most of the calls were placed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Last month, the school board passed a policy explicitly stating that the phones were not permitted on school grounds. Shortly thereafter, officials conducted a random search of a district high school that turned up 37 cellphones belonging to students.

States Laws Changing

But many parents want their teenagers to have cellphones, especially in light of events such as the terrorist attacks and the spate of school shootings in recent years. After campus shootings, children called their parents to tell them they were safe. Last month, many students used the portable phones to find out if parents and other relatives working in or near the World Trade Center or the Pentagon were all right.

"Parents want to know that their kids are safe," said Teena Nations, the director of planning, evaluation, and legislative services for the 12,700-student Norman, Okla., schools. "And we want parents to know that their kids are safe."

That's why the Norman school district recently changed its policy to allow principals to decide whether students can carry cellphones on school grounds or at school- related activities.

However, if students are allowed to carry the phones, they must make sure the phones are turned off during classes. "We don't want class disrupted," Ms. Nations said. "We want safety."

The Norman district was able to change its policy because last spring legislators in Oklahoma repealed a state law banning cellphones on school property. Other states have made similar moves. After two unsuccessful attempts in Maryland to repeal that state's ban, lawmakers there passed legislation last spring similar to Oklahoma's that allows district officials to set policies on student cellphone use. Previously, the state law made it a crime to carry cellphones in school, and students could have faced jail time for a second offense. ("Districts Inclined to Hang Up on Students' Cellular Phones," March 22, 2000.)

Last week, the Anne Arundel County, Md., school board agreed to consider a policy change that would allow high school students in the 74,600-pupil district to carry cellphones. The recommendation, which is scheduled to be voted on early next month, stipulates that the phones must be turned off during the school day.

Allowing students to carry cellphones "makes sense in this day and age, when you have two-income families who need to coordinate after- school activities," said Cynthia Johnston, the chairwoman of the Countywide Citizens Advisory Committee, a group of parent representatives.

She said that a parent could get stuck in traffic, or a child's activity could be moved to another location, and having the line of communication that cellphones provide is helpful in such situations.

But, Ms. Johnston stressed, there is no reason for students to have the phones turned on during classes. "If there is a distraction, then teachers should be able to confiscate the phones," she said.

Problems Persist

Allowing students to have communication with their parents was foremost in the minds of officials in Maryland's Montgomery County schools when they decided earlier this month to allow students to carry cellphones, said Brian J. Porter, the spokesman for the 136,000-student district.

And during times of crisis, that communication is even more important. "When September 11 happened, kids were whipping out their cellphones left and right," said Mr. Porter, whose district is located just outside Washington.

But cellphones are causing problems in other districts.

Schools in both Escambia County, Fla., and Corpus Christi, Texas, have reported an increase in the number of anonymous bomb threats experienced by schools since Sept. 11. Many of those threats apparently were called in by students with cellphones.For instance, students in Escambia County were using cellphones to dial 911 with bomb threats, according to Ronnie Arnold, a spokesman for the 45,300-student district, which includes Pensacola. "As a result of that," he said, "it was time to go back and put some teeth in [the cellphone] policy."

So far, 14 students have been arrested and charged with making false bomb reports. Seven of those students have been found guilty and sentenced to three years in a juvenile-detention facility.

As a result, the school board ruled that if a student is caught with a cellphone on school grounds, the phone will be confiscated, and a parent would have to go to the school and sign a release to get the phone back. A second offense would result in the school's keeping the phone for the remainder of the academic year.

Last month, school officials conducted a random search at the 1,700- student Pine Forest High School in the Escambia County district and confiscated 37 cellphones.

Students who call in bomb threats are usually trying to get attention, or to get out of taking an exam, said Ronald D. Stephens, the executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif.

And he said "as Draconian as it sounds, oftentimes all you need are a few good prosecutions or dispositions of these threats to bring them to a stop."

He also cautioned that in districts where students are allowed to carry cellphones, it may be difficult for students to remember to turn the phones off during the day, thus increasing the chances that classes will be disrupted.

Mr. Stephens noted that he has been in many meetings with adults in which cellphones rang and caused a disruption. "If the adults can't even get them turned off, how will the students remember?" he said.

But in California, students at James Monroe High believe they are capable of using their cellphones responsibly.

"I carry a cellular phone, and I feel we are all responsible enough to carry a cellphone without disrupting classes," said Mr. Fantini, the student president.

So when his principal, Mr. Vallone, suggested that some students at the law and government magnet school lobby to change the state ban, they readily took up the charge.

Mr. Fantini is a member of a student advisory committee for Robert M. Hertzberg, the speaker of the California Assembly. The committee asked Mr. Hertzberg to consider proposing a bill that would allow students to carry cellphones on school grounds.

Mr. Vallone said he would like to see the state pass a bill similar to the ones in Maryland and Oklahoma that lets schools write their own policies.

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Vol. 21, Issue 9, Pages 1,13

Web Resources
  • Teachers face off in a debate over cell phones in schools in "Should Cell Phones and Pagers Be Allowed in School?," March 2001, from the NEA Today.
  • In "Hold the Phone," from Electronic School, September 2000, author Kathleen Vail says school boards must weigh school safety against classroom disruption when it comes to cell phones and pagers in schools.
  • Cobb County (Ga.) Public Schools' student behavior code: "Students are not allowed to use, wear, possess, or store in their locker any of the following: cellular telephones, communication beepers, other electronic communication devices, including all 'look alikes,' in school." Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools' pager policy: "An individual may not possess a portable pager on public school property [with noted exceptions]." (Requires Adobe's Acrobat Reader.)
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