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Schools, States Review Cell Phone Bans
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More than a decade after many school systems and states prohibited students from carrying and using pagers and cellular phones in school, state lawmakers and administrators are rethinking their positions. The widespread use of the devices and parents' concerns about their children's safety are prompting new policies that allow student use under strict guidelines. Included: How schools are adapting student cellular-phone-use policies.

The proliferation of cellular phones in society and anxiety after the September 11 terrorist attacks are prompting some school systems and states to rethink their campus bans on the devices.

Some states -- such as Maryland and Virginia -- lifted their bans prior to September 11, in response to the widespread use of phones by adults and youths. These states now allow school districts to draft their own policies In other cases, the terrorist attacks accelerated debate on the issue.

Probably nowhere has the topic come up with more urgency than in New York City, with its 1.1 million students. Although cell phones are still officially prohibited in New York City schools, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the ensuing communications problems prompted Chancellor Harold O. Levy to review the policy. No decision has been made yet.

"Some of the students told their parents it was hard to reach them [on September 11] because all the public phones were in use and they were not allowed to carry cell phones," says Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the New York City Board of Education. "Now the chancellor is looking into changing the policy. We want students to be able to reach their parents in the event of an emergency."

"There are valid reasons for kids to have cell phones," says Ned Waterhouse, deputy superintendent of schools for Loudon County, Virginia. Loudon County amended its policy in spring 2001 to allow students to carry cell phones as long as they are turned off. They can use the phones before and after school. Virginia dropped its ban on cell phones in schools several months earlier. "A lot of parents want them for safety's sake."


Many school systems and states passed policies or laws in the late 1980s and early 1990s prohibiting students from using cell phones or pagers in school because of the devices' association with drug dealers. The ringing and beeping from the phones and pagers, sometimes in class, also were disruptive. Now, however, many families consider cell phones and pagers basic equipment.

According to an October 2001 study by the Yankee Group, a consulting and research company, "The widespread use of wireless phones and other devices on the day of the tragedies [September 11] will lead many consumers and corporations to view wireless technologies as necessities rather than conveniences."

Yankee Group estimated that there would be about 2 million more cell phone subscribers by the end of 2001, for a total of about 130 million, than originally forecast. By the end of 2002, the number is expected to grow to 145 million. "Certain markets, such as the teen-youth segment, will exhibit stronger growth," notes the report.

"Cell phones are ubiquitous now," says Kate Harrison, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County (Maryland) School District. Montgomery County schools also allow students to carry cell phones, but they must be turned off during the day and used only before and after school. The policy was adopted in October 2001, several months after Maryland repealed a state law prohibiting handheld portable electronic devices in schools. "Now it is up to the school districts to decide how to regulate them," Harris adds.

Similar proposals are on the table in the Georgia General Assembly's Senate and House of Representatives. The two separate bills to repeal Georgia's school cell phone ban are being debated in their respective education committees.

An Illinois state representative, Mary Flowers, also has introduced a bill to have her state's ban repealed.

The Georgia Senate bill, sponsored by state Sen. Richard Marable, chairman of the education committee, would repeal the 1989 state ban on cell phones and pagers in schools and allow school districts to set their own policies for their use.

"Times change," Marable tells Education World. "There are certainly a great many parents now, and I am one of them, who rely on electronic devices to keep track of their children. Certainly we can protect the educational integrity of schools and still utilize this high technology."


School administrators are approaching the issue with caution, according to Barbara Knisely, a spokeswoman for the American Association of School Administrators. "We've seen a mixed reaction [among members] since September 11," Knisely explains to Education World. Some schools and states already had revised their policies in 1999, after student shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, killed and wounded numerous students and teachers, she says. "On the pro side, [of allowing students to have cell phones] it can reassure families because they can be in touch with their children."

Some administrators, though, are concerned about students' using the phones inappropriately. Several school officials have reported bomb threats being called into schools from cell phones on the day of a test, Knisely says.

Citing that reason and others, National School Safety and Security Services (NSSSS), a consulting firm that focuses on school safety and crisis preparedness, opposes allowing students to carry cell phones and pagers. The potential abuses and disruption outweigh the advantages, according to the NSSSS statement.

The firm notes that students have used cell phones to call in bomb threats, which are difficult to trace. The phones also could inadvertently detonate an electronic explosive device, if one is in a school.

Hundreds or thousands of students using cell phones at the same time during a crisis also could overload the system, NSSSS maintains.

Although acknowledging that cell phones and pagers are a convenience for students and parents, the organization notes "From an educational perspective, cell phones primarily present another disruption to the educational environment on a day-to-day basis."

At the same time, the NSSSS encourages schools to have enough cell phones available for administrators, crisis team members, and "other appropriate adults."

Still, some in education and state policy think the time has come for a change. Marable, the Georgia senator, says he has heard little opposition so far to his bill lifting the ban and allowing students to use phones before and after school. "I think September 11 heightened everyone's sense of safety," he comments to Education World. "This would help parents set policies and guidelines, and help ease their concerns."