What's that beeping in student backpacks?

California is reversing its school ban on cellphones. Will other states follow suit as teen usage escalates?

It is a typical back-to-school shopping day at the mall. Teens have descended on the popular American clothing boutiques, and are dragging unwieldy shopping bags – and reluctant parents – through the checkout lines.

What makes this scene different from a mere two years ago is those little gadgets sticking out of back jean pockets or the sides of backpacks: cellphones.

Here, five friends are meeting outside American Eagle for lunch – the time and place arranged not by a morning consensus, but in networked phone calls made just minutes ago. With the power of e-mail, instant messaging, and voicemail at their fingertips, these 15-year-olds are connected.

By February 2002, over half of 12- to 17-year-olds were toting cellphones, according to a survey by Frank Magid & Associates and UPOC, a developer of mobile community and marketing technologies. The increasing ubiquity of cellphones – while not controversial at the mall – is stirring debate as the devices enter another teen haunt: the classroom.

Last week, the nation's largest state took an important stand on the issue. California governor Gray Davis reversed a 14-year ban on cellphones in public schools, signaling a growing movement toward strict parameters for – but not outright prohibitions of – cellphone use in schools. The decision reaffirms how integral wireless communication has become for today's youth.

From accessory to 'necessity'

"I've had a cellphone since I was in sixth grade," says Caitlin Stewart, a freshman at Rancho Cotate High School in Santa Rosa, as she flips through a rack of shirts at American Eagle.

Over at the pants section, a father and daughter are talking animatedly – but not with each other. He's doing business; she's pulled out a Nokia to complain to a friend.

"Whether they're legal or not, we're gonna carry them around," Caitlin chimes in on her way to the dressing room. "Life changes. You have to adapt."

Cellphone companies estimate that more high school students have access to cellphones than don't. CNET, a technology information and services provider, predicts that by 2004, three-quarters of teens will use a cellphone daily – whether or not they own one. And often there's a whole array of other gadgets floating around in those backpacks: PDAs, pagers, MP3 players, Game Boys.

Gov. Davis's reversal of the phone ban gives individual schools the power to determine whether cellphones are appropriate. Proponents of phones in schools – many of whom cite the Columbine incident as evidence of the need for instant communication – applaud the decision.

Meanwhile, similar debates are being hammered out in state capitals across the country. Maryland, Arkansas, and Virginia have also overturned cellphone bans. Illinois and Indiana are, for now at least, more hesitant. Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have banned cellphones in schools under laws that limit the use of electronic communication devices, generally as a way of thwarting drug dealing, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Shifting opinions – and social mores

The classroom once stood as a symbol of protection from social machinations and the whims of fashion. Now, technological advance seems to be winning the day – in the minds of parents, students, and even some teachers.

Debbie Craft, whose daughter, a sophomore, is trying on jeans, says using cellphones will teach children responsibility. "People bring them to work, so they'll have to learn when it's appropriate, anyway," Craft says.

Staying in touch with children

Parents, ultimately, are often the ones enabling cellphone use: Though teens may pay for extra minutes, Mom and Dad typically foot the bill. Indeed, the phones can be as much for parents' peace of mind as for teens' chatter. "Kids say ... they get their phones from their parents for safety," says Greg Clayman at UPOC. "Usually it's right when they get their driver's license. And the first emergency is usually: Where's the party tonight and how do I get there?"

But some cellphone opponents argue that the gadgets communicate nothing so much as wealth, deepening social divides between students who can afford them and those who can't.

"I don't think I have a single friend who doesn't have a cellphone," says Ahna O'Reilly, a senior at Menlo School, one of the Bay Area's most expensive private schools, which was immune from the statewide ban. She held out with only a pager for several years, because carrying a phone "seemed almost snobby and pretentious." In the end, she caved in.

"I would find myself without a ride home from school and without 35 cents for the pay phone," O'Reilly explains.

But, as more teens buy cellphones, they're finding that have to master a whole new subject: how to silence those musical ring tones during class.

Scott Braxton, a principal at Bell High School in Bell, Calif., says punishing students who misuse phones is easy: confiscate them. But, he says, technologically speaking, the integration of cellphones into school culture is inevitable.

"If we think pagers and cellphones are a problem now, wait until kids come with implants and communication devices in their glasses and so on," he says, "We have to acknowledge that [advanced communication technology] is here to stay, but develop policies to control it."

And text messaging, Mr. Clayman of UPOC points out, is already a fact of life, a high-tech form of note-passing. "Think about what that does for cheating in class," he says. "I would hate to be a teacher these days."

Max Thompson, a Menlo School junior who has had a cellphone since he was 12, says most students are aware of how to use phones in a courteous way. In class, Max says, they can mute their ringers or set their phones on "vibrate."

Still, are high school students old enough to determine what times are inappropriate to use a cellphone? And if not, will the troublemaker in the back of the classroom become a bigger nuisance?

For now, at least, that is a question for the schools – and not the state – of California.

• Jim Blair in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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