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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Can Districts Legally Mandate Student Vaccines? No, Two New Lawsuits Claim
Two large California districts are being sued over policies requiring vaccinations for schoolchildren by the end of 2021.
5 min read
Diego Cervantes, 16, gets a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena on May 14, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif.
Diego Cervantes, 16, gets a shot of the Pfizer vaccine at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena last spring in Pasadena, Calif.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center Higher Student Morale Linked to In-Person Instruction, Survey Shows
Educators see student morale rising since last spring, according to a new EdWeek Research Center survey.
4 min read
Second-grade students raise their hands during a math lesson with teacher Carlin Daniels at Pulaski Elementary School in Meriden, Conn., Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021.
Second grade students raise their hands during a math lesson in Meriden, Conn., Sept. 30.
Dave Zajac/Record-Journal via AP
School Climate & Safety Law Against 'Disorderly Conduct' in Schools Led to Unfair Student Arrests, Judge Rules
The South Carolina ruling is a model for other states where students are still being arrested for minor incidents, an attorney said.
6 min read
Scales of justice and Gavel on wooden table.
Pattanaphong Khuankaew/iStock
School Climate & Safety A Rise in School Shootings Leads to Renewed Calls for Action
A return to in-person learning means a return to school shootings, advocates warn.
5 min read
Families depart the Mansfield ISD Center For The Performing Arts Center where families were reunited with Timberview High School Students, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021 in Mansfield, Texas. Police in Texas have arrested a student suspected of opening fire during a fight at his Dallas-area high school, leaving four people injured.
Families were reunited Oct. 6 in Mansfield, Texas, after a student opened fire at Timberview High School in Arlington, leaving four people injured. Data show that the start of this school year has been particularly violent compared to previous years.
Tony Gutierrez/AP