January 26th, 2007

Students Get Message: Leave Phones at Home

By Judy Keen
USA Today

Milwaukee — Schools across the USA are cracking down on students whose cellphones disrupt classes and make it easier to cheat.

Starting Monday, the 222 public schools here will enforce a ban prompted by fights that escalated into brawls when students used cellphones to summon family members and outsiders.

“It’s a mess,” says Ed Kovochich, principal of Bradley Tech High School. He broke up a fight last month that involved a non-student carrying a pistol who arrived after getting text messages from students. Under the new policy, Kovochich says, “If you use it, we take it.”

Many states banned electronic devices in schools more than a decade ago when pagers and portable music players became popular, says Tom Hutton, a lawyer with the National School Boards Association. The laws were aimed at pagers, then a tool for drug dealers.

After the 1999 Columbine school shootings and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, schools yielded to parents’ desire to have instant contact with their children and tolerated phones, Hutton says.

“Now they’re starting to tighten up enforcement,” says Ken Trump of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting company based in Cleveland. “While technology has opened up many positive things, it also has a dark side.”

School officials say they’re trying to stop students from answering phones and sending text messages during class and taking photos of tests:

•Last month, Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton High School in Glyndon, Minn., started confiscating ringing phones. School officials keep the phones for 24 hours for a first offense, three days for a second offense and six days — including a weekend — for third offenses.

“I’ve got their attention,” says principal Tom Gravel, who took three or four phones daily from his 352 students before the new rules and now confiscates about one a week.

•Public schools in Biloxi, Miss., have a zero-tolerance policy despite parents who have argued since Hurricane Katrina that their children need to have cellphones at school. “If we see one or hear one, we will confiscate it for the rest of the school year,” says deputy superintendent Robert Bowles.

•Eight parents and a parents’ group are suing New York City public schools, which last year began enforcing a ban. Their lawyer, Norman Siegel, says the parents don’t believe phones should be used in school. “The issue,” he says, “is the right of the parents to provide safety to and from school.”

The case was argued last week before the New York County Supreme Court; a ruling could be months away.

•Even students at Deep Springs Elementary School in Lexington, Ky., come to class with phones, says principal Matt Thompson. Most just want to “show them off,” he says.

Some students and parents here object to the ban. “Sometimes they might need a phone for an emergency,” says Erica Ramirez, 50, whose son Abraham, 15, attends Pulaski High School. Shenill Smith, 16, says phones are disruptive, but adds, “I don’t feel good about” the ban. Carlos Ramos, 16, says students will ignore the rules and “everything’s going to be exactly the same.”

Superintendent William Andrekopoulos says the district’s 90,000 students could be suspended or have their phones confiscated. If students use cellphones to endanger others, they can be expelled. Parents can apply for waivers if there are medical or other reasons for their children to have phones.

Electronic devices were banned here years ago, Andrekopoulos says, but enforcement was eased so students could listen to music on the way to school.

It’s unfortunate that ugly incidents have forced a change, he says. “We think it’s definitely become a safety issue.”

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