Mixed Messages

October 07, 2004 5 min read
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With the repeal of statewide cell phone bans, districts are being asked to make their own policy decisions.

Like most of her friends at Renaissance High School in Detroit, 16-year-old Whitney Tillery carries a cell phone in her purse. The junior admits this sheepishly—she knows Detroit Public Schools policy forbids students from carrying or using mobile phones, pagers, and other portable electronic devices. But she also knows the reception her phone gets—so to speak—varies from classroom to classroom. “Some teachers confiscate them if they see them,” she says. “Other times, teachers will just tell students to put them away.” That disparity is a microcosm of the growing national ambivalence toward cell phones at school.

As pagers and then cell phones became commonplace during the past two decades, many school districts at first took a hard line. Afraid the gadgets might be used in drug deals and gang activity, and wary of the beeping, trilling distraction they created, several states banned them outright from school grounds. Then came Columbine and September 11, and the cell phone calls students were able to make from locked-down schools to reassure frantic parents and summon help. Many parents also now rely on calls from their highly scheduled children to know when they need to be picked up from honor society meetings, orchestra rehearsals, or soccer practices. In response, the state legislature in Michigan, like those in Arkansas, California, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, recently lifted its statewide ban on the devices. Now school administrators are forced to decide how to balance parent and student demands for safety and convenience with the need to keep classrooms from sounding like a phone bank during a pledge drive.

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but anecdotal evidence suggests that many school districts are implementing policies that fall somewhere between banning cell phones entirely and enshrining them as an absolute right. After all, it’s pretty hard to outlaw an object that’s become nearly as ubiquitous as the wristwatch. According to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based communications research firm, an estimated one-third of U.S. children ages 10 to 19 already have cell phones—a figure expected to grow to two-thirds by 2005. “You get to a point where you can’t fight them anymore,” says Stephen Degenaar, principal of Apple Valley High School in Minnesota. This past year, the 2,300-student school updated its policy to say it’s OK for students to carry cell phones as long as the devices remain out of sight during the school day. “There’s cell phone etiquette,” Degenaar explains. “You don’t want cell phones going off when you’re in a theater watching a movie, and it’s the same thing during a school day.”

Although Michigan’s cell phone moratorium is now history, Whitney still finds herself on the wrong side of school policy. Detroit is maintaining its ban on cell phones—at least for now. “We don’t want anything to interfere with the instructional process,” says Roland Moore, the district’s chief information and technology officer. But, he adds, officials will review the policy this year “to make sure [it] has widespread support.” It may not—Renaissance’s 132 student council members previously voted unanimously to recommend allowing students to carry phones if they are turned off. In Washington state, one state senator tried to take cell phone acceptance even further by introducing a bill that would ban school cell phone bans. The measure, which passed the Senate unanimously but died in the House of Representatives, would have effectively guaranteed students’ right to carry phones at school, though schools could still have regulated their use. The bill’s sponsor, Senator Rosemary McAuliffe, has said she will reintroduce it.

With the repeal of statewide cell phone bans, districts are being asked to make their own policy decisions.
—Photograph by David Kidd

Not everyone buys the argument that school safety improves when students have cell phones. This past year in Chalmette, Louisiana, the school board considered replacing an outright ban with a policy allowing students to carry but not use cell phones during school hours. But after gathering negative feedback from principals, the board decided to let its original embargo stand. “We have adults always available who have cell phones, so we didn’t see a need for a child to have a cell phone to make any kind of emergency call,” says Frank Auderer Jr., superintendent of St. Bernard Parish Public Schools.

Others note that students don’t always use their cell phones just to call Mom or 911. North Carolina’s Orange County Schools is tightening its cell phone policy this fall in response to a spate of more than 20 bomb threats called in to its two middle and two high schools. “Most were called in by students from inside the school on cell phones,” spokeswoman Anne D’Annunzio says. Cell phones are now prohibited in the district’s elementary and middle schools; high school students must keep them in lockers or cars and can only use them after school. Even in New York City, which experienced the necessity of instant communication firsthand on September 11, cell phones are still officially verboten on school grounds. A pilot program allowing students to possess but not use cell phones during the school day, launched this past year in 15 city high schools, is currently being evaluated.

Recent technological advances, including phones that take photographs and send cheating-friendly text messages, may up the stakes of enforcing pragmatic, “carry-but-don’t-use” rules. “The state-of-the-art phone is a picture-taking phone, and that’s what most of the kids have right now, “Degenaar says. Organizations such as the Montana High School Association are strongly recommending that schools forbid the use of picture phones in locker rooms or bathrooms. The Kentucky School Boards Association has issued a sample policy that outlines limitations on the use of cell phones and camera phones, but it stops short of recommending an outright ban. “We think it’s far better to say, ‘Here’s what’s OK, here’s what’s not,’” says KSBA spokesman Brad Hughes, “not, ‘You can’t have it.’”

—Lynn Waldsmith


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