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Opinion
Infrastructure Commentary

Cellphones in Schools?

By Bruce S. Cooper & John W. Lee — July 11, 2006 7 min read

Cellular telephones are nearly ubiquitous, their numbers possibly surpassing by now those of automobiles. Offering us instant access and instant response, cells are bringing society into greater communication with itself than ever before. But these little devices also pose an interesting problem for schools. In the hands of children and adolescents, they have become objects of serious concern—and the focus of a simmering controversy.

More than a decade ago, for example, the New York City public schools barred students from bringing cellphones to school. But many of the city’s schools ignored the ban, as principals and teachers negotiated ways to deal with the issue in their own buildings. Recently, however, New York City’s mayor and schools chancellor cracked down. As part of a new school safety policy, mobile metal scanners were brought into middle and high schools for unannounced sweeps. Students had their pockets and bags randomly searched for weapons, drugs, and other forbidden objects. Within two weeks, the scanners uncovered a dozen or so knives, some box cutters, a gun, and more than 800 cellphones, which were confiscated.

The case against cellphone use in schools is a legitimate one. With from 25 to 34 students in a classroom (and sometimes more), a steady stream of calls from concerned parents or loquacious friends could easily strain the nerves and break the concentration of teachers and students alike. Just as cellphones have become an increasing problem in churches, cinemas, concert halls, and other public settings, they can also be disruptive, bothersome devices in schools.

Moreover, with their new capabilities, cellphones also can cause more serious problems. Cellphone cameras, for example, can allow students to use their phones to photograph and transmit tests. Imagine a student, sitting quietly at his desk, holding a cellphone up under his chin to capture the pages of the examination he is taking, and then making those images instantly available to dozens of other students. Or perhaps, during class breaks, the student could share photographed test questions with peers, or broadcast possible answers via text-messaging to friends across campus who might be taking the test during later class periods.

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Reportedly, some students also are using cellphones as a way to challenge or counteract school authorities. When they feel wronged, these students call family members, asking them to come to the school. Irate parents often arrive at teachers’ or principals’ doors before schools have had the chance to handle tough situations internally. Worse still, some students have urged their friends via cellphones to assemble outside school and attack classmates as payback for real or imagined wrongs.

Given the potential for abuse, a ban sounds logical. Yet, in today’s society, cellphones also serve as modern-day umbilical cords, able to link children with their increasingly busy (and worried) parents and guardians. In an age of terrorism and sexual predators, caregivers seek a ready lifeline to their children, and often want or need to hear from them about their locations, schedules, and problems. It’s a common refrain: “Yes, dear, where are you? We’re waiting at your doctor’s office, so please come. How far away are you?”

In New York City, these two opposing perspectives gained visibility when the executive board of the city’s 140,000-member teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, passed a resolution in favor of allowing cellphones in schools. The action was a response to the citywide crackdown by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein. UFT President Randi Weingarten emphasized cellphones’ role as a parental lifeline. “We agree with the prohibition of cellphone use in buildings,” she said, “but we need to have a balance. This is a typical situation where people who abuse cellphones ruin it for the kids and parents who need it.”

Many teachers, themselves parents of school-age children, apparently also felt the need to have direct and easy access to their kids. Or perhaps the powerful teachers’ union may have believed that teachers, parents, and school leaders could manage the cellphone problem on their own, without a blanket, citywide restriction.

Regardless of the reasons, rumblings about reversing or limiting the cellphone ban began to gain force as parents, long the silent partners in education, mobilized to have the policy revoked. Already, the Association of New York City Education Councils, a representative body appointed by the public system, has drafted a petition to lift the cellphone prohibition. In addition, the Citywide Council on High Schools has presented a resolution introduced by member David Bloomfield that would revise the city regulation (A-412) “to permit student possession or storage of electronic communications devices on school premises in order to facilitate their use by students off school premises, particularly going to and from school.” Despite this, however, the mayor has said he will not reconsider the ban.

Perhaps Mayor Bloomberg, Chancellor Klein, and students’ parents can reach a compromise for the mutual benefit of all. We can suggest what some of its possible elements might be. First, for example, all phones could be turned off and secured by students, out of sight, during classes, programs, meetings, and assemblies.

Second, schools might create a neutral “phone zone,” an area where students could call, answer messages, and hear from parents, which would be outside the building’s halls and classrooms. “Dear, I’ll call you between 4th and 5th periods, at 12:15 p.m., so be in the phone zone, please.” (Such restraint is good practice for later corporate life, where managing communications is important to success on the job.)

Third, parents could be required to sign permission slips for their children’s cellphone use. Such forms would ask families to testify that they know about and authorize the cellphone at the school, and to explain the reasons their children might need to use a cellphone during school hours. Parents could indicate, for example, that their children have medical conditions such as asthma or diabetes, and thus need the phone for possible emergencies.

The current city regulation contains a provision allowing parents to obtain prior approval from the principal for children to carry beepers and other communications devices for medical reasons. Without the signed permission letter, students’ cellphones could be confiscated and held until parents came to pick them up at school. This would be a strong incentive for families to think about their children’s needs and the importance of filing the permission slip at the school each year.

Fourth, students could agree to secure their phones at some agreed-upon place when they arrive at school each day, and to pick them up when they leave. Any contact between a student and parent during school hours would have to be done the old-fashioned way. A school secretary could summon the student in an emergency, or parents could leave voice-mail messages on the child’s cellphone, to be retrieved after school.

Another option would be to black out cellphone use electronically inside school buildings, as is standard practice in some banks and hospitals. A bill has been introduced in Congress by U.S. Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., seeking to block access to MySpace.com, the Internet social-networking site for young people, because of fears about its use by predators and the possible exploitation of young site participants. A similar policy for schools could allow students to own and carry cellphones, but not use them in and during school.

And finally, students and their parents could learn to use cellphones more responsibly, in accordance with guidelines and policies established collaboratively at the school. These would address the legitimate concerns of educators, parents, and students alike.

So the four parts of a compromise regulating, but not prohibiting, the use of cellphones would include the following: registration of all cellphones; turning off cells during classes and other official school gatherings and programs; restricting their use to certain times and locations, such as the phone zone; and checking cells at the school building or classroom doors.

Cellphones are here to stay. More and more work is being done on these communication devices, as they morph into BlackBerries, hand-held calculators, phone banks, digital cameras, radios, and even televisions. Education cannot stand in the way of progress, but a carefully constructed technology policy, reliably enforced, would prevent students from being distracted, tempted, overloaded, or confused by constant electronic contact with the outside world.

All of which reminds us of a recent New Yorker cartoon. A parent pokes her head into her son’s bedroom and pleads, “Dear, if you’ll shut off your computer, you can come watch television!”

We should be saying this to students: Learn about technology, use it, develop it, but also understand how to control it. Employ cellphones for your benefit, but don’t be burdened by constantly answering and talking on them. In this way, it should be possible for school and home, teacher and parent, to make these technological marvels work to improve the lives and safety of our children.

A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Cellphones in Schools?

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