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School Climate & Safety

N.Y.C. Schools to Open Doors to Student Cellphones

By Sam Atkeson — October 28, 2014 4 min read
Students from Norman Thomas High School in New York City pay a vendor a dollar a day to store their cellphones. The city district currently bans the possession of student-owned digital devices in school.

The country’s largest school district plans to end its ban on student cellphones in schools, following the path of a growing number of school systems that now see the devices as tools for academic learning and communicating with parents, rather than classroom distractions.

The New York City schools’ cellphone policy—which experts say is one of the strictest in the country—is scheduled to undergo changes that will align it with policies established by other large urban districts, such as the Los Angeles Unified school system, Chicago public school district, and the Miami-Dade County, Fla., school system.

The push to end the ban in the 1.1 million-student district—prompted by Mayor Bill de Blasio and city schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña—is the most recent chapter in a debate that has long pitted city education officials against parents and students. The sides have argued over the value of students carrying cellphones for safety reasons against their potential to disrupt learning.

Currently, students are prohibited from possessing a cellphone on school grounds, even if it is turned off and stowed away.

City education officials are currently working with school principals to establish a new policy, but are not sure when it will be in place.

One of the biggest problems with the ban, according to parents and advocates of a more open policy, is that its enforcement has varied over the years and across the district’s 1,700 schools.

Safety Concerns

During one of the most intense periods of enforcement in the past decade, a 2006 initiative led by then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and then-schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein involved the use of mobile scanning equipment to uncover and confiscate over 3,000 student cellphones.

In response, the United Federation of Teachers’ executive board voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing the cellphone ban.

But now, strict enforcement of the policy is mostly confined to the 88 schools in the district that are equipped with metal detectors, according to advocates for a more open policy. There, students who wish to carry cellphones to and from school must pay to keep them at one of the commercial cellphone storage vehicles parked strategically around the city. At most of the city’s other schools, little is done to catch cellphones that do not create an overt disturbance.

That disparity of enforcement is problematic, said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a nonprofit organization that advocates for smaller classes in the city’s public schools, among other issues.

Class Size Matters has opposed the cellphone ban from the start, Ms. Haimson said, who argued that the policy disproportionately affects poor students and students of color.

“The reality is that most schools do allow cellphones,” said Ms. Haimson. “Most schools do not enforce the policy, and the schools that do enforce the policy—those with scanners—are very unevenly distributed across the city. They are in areas where there are large numbers of poor students and students of color, and where the neighborhoods are more dangerous.”

Those neighborhoods, Ms. Haimson argued, are often where students need cellphones the most.

Tenika Boyd, the mother of a 3rd grade student at PS 321 in Brooklyn, also expressed concerns about the uneven enforcement of the cellphone policy. But her primary concern, she said, is safety.

“It’s important for parents to be able to reach their children,” Ms. Boyd said, noting that many students in her neighborhood commute to school without cellphones. “I have friends whose children have to take trains to school. Many of them live in unsafe neighborhoods, where being able to reach their children is really necessary.”

Changing Attitudes

But Rashid Davis, the founding principal of Pathways in Technology Early College High School, or P-Tech, in Brooklyn, has very different concerns about safety and cellphones.

“My concern is the safety for students traveling to and from school with expensive devices,” Mr. Davis said. “It may be safe to walk around with your iPhone out in Manhattan, but in some parts of central Brooklyn, you could easily be assaulted for having those devices.”

Even though one of the primary goals of P-Tech is to prepare students to work in the technology industry, when students enter the school through metal detectors each morning, they are effectively prevented from bringing cellphones on school property. Once they enter school, they have access to school-provided technology.

Mr. Davis said he is grateful for the ban, and believes the move to overturn it will be disruptive to teaching and learning.

“Educators will be spending more time fighting with children about not using their devices,” Mr. Davis predicted, “and that means lost instructional time.”

Mr. Davis is not alone in his apprehension regarding cellphones in schools.

But Peter Grunwald, the president of the research group Grunwald Associates LLC, said he believes attitudes are evolving toward greater acceptance of allowing student cellphones in schools.

Grunwald and Associates, along with the Learning First Alliance and AT&T, published a report last year entitled “Living and Learning with Mobile Devices,” which details parent attitudes toward mobile devices for early-childhood and K-12 learning.

The report revealed a relatively high level of support from parents regarding the instructional potential of cellphones, with over half of parents saying that schools should make more use of the devices. Keith R. Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking, said that over the past five years, many school districts across the country have adjusted their cellphone policies to reflect those changing attitudes.

“Many places for the last number of years have been allowing students to use cellphones in between classes or at recess,” Mr. Krueger said. “But it wasn’t really used for instructional purposes, and I think that while we’re still at a relatively early stage, that’s changing rapidly.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as N.Y.C. Schools to Repeal Student Cellphone Ban

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