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Crafting A Workable Cell Phone Policy

With so many families depending on cell phones, banning them from schools became pointless. Now the debate is how to regulate phone use in schools, as more students own camera phones and ones that can send text messages and connect to the Internet. Included: Sample cell phone policies.

Just a few years ago, it looked like regulating cellular phone use in schools was getting a lot easier. Cell phones had become ubiquitous and innocuous, and making it a school offense or even a crime to possess them on school grounds didn't make much sense anymore.

But just as states and school districts were relaxing their policies, along came a new generation of cell phone -- with cameras, Internet access, and text messaging -- that it seems every teen must have. Now administrators are wrestling with how to permit the legitimate use of phones, while preventing possible privacy violations and cheating.

"Cell phones still are an issue, but not the same issue," said Dr. William Scharffe, president of the American Association of Policy Services, a work-a-like group with the National School Boards Association (NSBA), and director of bylaw and policy services for the Michigan Association of School Boards. "The main concern is prohibiting use during instructional time and not disrupting the school atmosphere. As the cell phone industry improved the product, it became more problematic for schools."


When cell phones, pagers, and beepers began to spread into the mainstream in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most districts and even states moved to ban them from school grounds. Beepers and pagers were associated with the drug trade, and it was feared if a student had one or the other, he or she was or wanted to be a drug dealer.

Some of the regulations originally were not written to apply to phones, but many were expanded to cover phones by including electronic devices among the banned items.

Technological and social changes and national events within the past six years, though, have prompted a review of policies. Advances in cell phone technology and the explosion of the industry made phones less of a luxury item and more a convenience, particularly for working parents trying to keep track of children. The other influences were more sudden and jarring: the shootings at Columbine High School in April 1999, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

People watched and heard as cell phones linked victims and potential victims to their loved ones and the outside world. Parents now wanted to be in closer contact with their children, and argued to school districts that cell phones were necessary for safety.

Still, some school administrators are wary of opening the gate. The New York City Public Schools, the largest district in the U.S., and one most affected by the terrorist attacks, still forbids students to have any electronic devices in their possession. But school officials are reviewing the policy, and may revise it to allow students to carry cell phones, as long as the devices are turned off during the school day, said Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the district.

"One reason we are looking at the policy is because of 9/11," Feinberg said. "Some cell phones still were able to operate that day."

But in most places, change has come

Click to read a 2004 study Pagers and Cellular Phones on School Property by the Education Commission of the States (ECS), which shows how many U.S. states have changed their policies.

"We have gotten a lot of information about major changes and school districts looking at policies," according to Naomi Gittins, staff attorney for the NSBA. "Many states are repealing the laws [regulating cell phones in schools] and are throwing the issue back at the local districts."

See an update on this story.

That is the case in Connecticut, whose state legislature revised its law regulating cell phone possession in schools to give local districts more latitude in dealing with the issue, said Vincent Mustaro, senior staff associate for policy for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education (CABE).

"School officials around the U.S. began to say that an outright ban was not realistic," Mustaro told Education World. "Parents are encouraging kids to carry phones. One high school principal estimated that 70 percent of the kids in his school had phones. I think the change is connected to school violence and a desire by parents to be more in touch with their kids, and the popularity and availability of phones continues to grow.

"There are more important things we want administrators involved in," than policing cell phone possession, Mustaro added.

At the same time, CABE is making it clear to school districts that cell phones should not be visible or used during instructional time.

"The position we take is that cell phones don't belong in classroom settings unless there is a specific reason, such as a medical disability that requires students to be in touch with a parent," he said. "They are a disruption and shouldn't be on during instructional time. They are not allowed in classrooms, and if they are there, they are confiscated."

CABE also recommends that camera phones be banned from schools because they can be secretly used to take pictures of people and violate privacy and be used for cheating, he said.

Dr. Scharffe said he recommends similar policies to schools in Michigan. "I advise them that they can allow phones if they wish, but to limit their use; there should be no use during instructional time, they are a disruption to instruction and the school atmosphere. Most schools are not going to make a big deal about it. You can bring the phone to school, but you can't use it."

He also suggests banning camera phones or ones that can send text messages, even if students or parents argue that those are the only type of phone a student has. "If safety is the issue [for owning a phone], just give them [youngsters] phones that make and receive calls," Dr. Scharffe said. "Most schools ban camera phones and those with Internet connections."

As for whether screening for different types of student phones could create more headaches for administrators, Dr. Scharffe said once the policy is clear, students have to live with the consequences. "If they use them [camera phones], they lose them," he said. "If they bring camera phones to school, someone will talk, and it will be discovered."

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) agrees that districts and schools should decide the policies, said spokesman Michael Carr.

"From our perspective, it is better left up to the local level to set policies," Carr told Education World. "It's not as much an issue of calling now as it is cameras and text messaging. We hear some talk among members about trying to make it work -- balancing the priorities."


Middleburg High School in Middleburg, Florida, has seen its cell phone policy change twice in three years as the state laws eased. Up until recently, state law required disciplinary action if a student had a wireless communication device on school grounds.

Middleburg students had a hand in changing the law last year, researching the state law and then urging legislators to change the regulations. Now the state allows students to possess a wireless communications device while on school property or in attendance at a school function, and it is up to each school board to adopt rules governing the use of wireless communications devices.

As of this school year, Middleburg students are allowed to carry cell phones, but they must be off at all times. If a student is found using a phone during the school day, the punishment is an automatic three-day, out-of-school suspension, principal Dr. David McDonald said. The school does not prohibit camera phones or those that can send text messages.

Just three years ago, a student could receive a ten-day suspension for having a phone in school, although the length of the suspension could be reduced at the discretion of the principal, Dr. McDonald told Education World. Last year, that policy allowed students to bring cell phones to school, but they had to be turned off and in lockers. If a student was found carrying one, the penalty was a three-day in-school suspension. If they had one and it rang, it was a three-day out of school suspension.

"We realized that kids needed them after school," said McDonald, adding that most of the 1,700 students in his school have cell phones.

The technology changes and the overwhelming number of student cell phones at St. Elizabeth High School in Wilmington, Delaware, prompted school officials to revise the cell phone policy for this school year, said John Forester, the school's dean of students.

Click to read St. Elizabeth High School's cell phone policy.

"It seems like every student has one," Forester told Education World. "Probably 90 percent of the 420 high school students have phones."

A problem school officials have encountered is students, mostly girls, according to Forester, secretly sending text messages to friends in other schools during class.

The new policy requires that phones be shut off, but students can carry their phones in their lockers, purses, or pockets. If students use a phone during the school day or if one rings during class, the student receives demerits. Camera phones are not forbidden, but the policy states that no cell phone photographs are allowed in the locker rooms or restrooms.

"We haven't heard many complaints," Forester said. "If a parent calls a phone while a student is in class, the student still gets a demerit, and the phone is confiscated for the day. The biggest offense is a phone ringing in class -- and it's usually a parent."


Now administrators are bracing for the ramifications of increased cell phone access, even as the technology continues to evolve and reaches younger students.

"Now the issue extends down to the elementary grades," Dr. Scharffe said. "There are first and second graders with cell phones. School districts across the land never thought they would have to deal with elementary students with cell phones."

Law enforcement officials also disagree on the benefits of students having cell phones, Dr. Scharffe added. "It would jam the system if [during an emergency] 250 people tried to call out from a school at one time," he said. "During the siege at Columbine, there were so many cell phone calls going out from the school that it clogged the system." Sheriff's departments in some communities have addressed the safety issue by providing students with pre-programmed cell phones that only can be used to dial 911 and cannot receive calls, Dr. Scharffe noted.

Schools also could lose some control in emergencies, according to Dr. McDonald. "I think this is creating a situation where we all have to deal with things differently," he said. "In the past, we could manage information in an emergency situation. But if students have phones, they will find a way to use them. There could be a lot of misinformation going out there."

Careful monitoring of policies and phone use are solid approaches for most administrators, researchers agreed. "The best you can do is set reasonable policies," Dr. Scharffe added.

Article by Ellen R. DeLisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2007 Education World

Originally published 02/22/2005
Last updated 06/09/2007