Backstory: 'Ringing' in the school year

New York City fights over whether to allow cellphones in schools, echoing a debate nationwide.

The cellphone has become the ultimate emblem of today's teenager – as much an appendage as an electronic device. Just ask Nathan Bixler, a 16-year-old senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York. Nathan frequently babysits his siblings and needs to know – often during the school day – whether he'll be on duty.

That's fine with Eleanor Roth, a substitute teacher in New York, provided those arrangements aren't made while she's teaching English. She's heard it all in class: loud rings, boisterous conversations, the ubiquitous giggles. On a recent Friday, five students were laughing hysterically in the back of the room. She marched toward them. "They were crowded around a cellphone displaying a video," she says.

Nathan and Ms. Roth represent the electron and proton of New York's Great Cellphone Debate. When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) began enforcing an 18-year-old ban on communications devices in public schools this spring, it touched off a small civil war.

Within a month, the school system became the unproud owner of more than 3,000 phones – all confiscated from students who walked through metal detectors placed randomly at schools across the city.

Outraged parents marched on City Hall. Kids acted as if they had been deprived of a constitutional right, or, worse, told to clean up their rooms. Most teachers, though believing schools should set such policies on their own, at least empathized with the rationale for the mayor's move: Finally, someone was talking about one of their chief complaints in the classroom.

Since then, the furor has subsided in the hallways, but the issue has hardly disappeared. A group of parents filed a lawsuit against the mayor, school chancellor, and the New York City Department of Education seeking to overturn the ban. Supporters of chatter-free schools seem unlikely to back off. "There is no constitutional right to disrupt a student's education," says Keith Kalb, an Education Department aide.

At City Hall, several council members are pushing for a legislative solution. If these efforts fail, the issue may end up in Albany. "I think the mayor just made a snap decision...," says State Sen. Tom Duane (D), a critic of the ban.

***

New York's tempest in a dial tone is hardly unique. Schools at all levels are struggling to cope with the technology's encroachment in the classroom. On the one hand, most high-tech accouterments – from the laptop to the Internet – are opening up unprecedented opportunities for learning. But they can also be distracting or worse, if cheating, crime, or indelicate videos are involved. Laptops are increasingly banned from university classrooms by professors who want to stop students from incessant surfing.

Cellphones, to be sure, are different. Even though they're becoming computers in a palm, they're still mainly used for communication. Along with their proliferation – Americans spent 1.7 trillion minutes on cellphones last year – it has become increasingly difficult for families, particularly kids, to part with them. Ever.

Part of the concern in New York is safety. Alex Newman recalls how his older sister went to high school a few blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11. "That's when they [my parents] got her a cellphone," he says. Mindy Gerbush, the parent of a recent high school graduate, agrees. "I lived through 9/11 with my son," she says. "It was important that he be able to reach us that day because he could not get home."

In other cases, cellphones have become the cotter pin that holds together the modern frenetic family. Carmen Colon is a single parent with three sons. "If the [No.] 4 train isn't running, I need to know and have them contact me," she says. "In order to juggle four lives, we need cellphones."

Christopher Cordova, a seventh-grader at the School of the Future in Manhattan, has the same concern. "What if my bus breaks down and I need to call my parents?" he asks plaintively.

There's no doubt, though, that most of the time teens spend on the phone today is simply gabbing – and they do so unapologetically. "We are teenagers in the busiest and most entertaining city in the world," says recent high school graduate Eric Stepansky. "We do have social lives, and cellphones are an essential tool."

That's fine, Mayor Bloomberg would argue: Just don't bring your cellular patter to school. The mayor believes cellphones are too often used for selling drugs, supporting gang activity, and cheating on tests. The New York City Department of Education says that 2,497 cellphone "disturbances" were recorded in the past school year. These ranged from students snapping pictures with their phones to making threats against others. Cellphones are the No. 1 stolen item in schools. In June, six students at two prestigious Brooklyn high schools were caught using their cells and an e-mail device to text message exam answers back and forth.

For teachers, cellphones are a constant nuisance. While most would rather see schools set their own rules than have a blanket ban, they're tired of the rings – these days in musical tones – in the classroom. David Pecoraro, a high school math teacher in Queens, says that on "more than one occasion" cellphones have been used to organize a physical attack on a student. Allan Vincent, a high school teacher in the Bronx, recalls being threatened by a student when he tried to confiscate his phone.

"If I see one [in the classroom], it's no longer theirs," warns Thomas Dunn, a teacher at Norman Thomas High School.

***

Ironically, the solution in New York may come from the culprits themselves – the students. After weeks of protests, Ms. Colon, president of the Association of New York City Education Councils, a parent advocacy group, organized a contest for teens to submit their own ideas on a way out of the impasse. Student winners would receive $250 – not bad for a chance to take on the mayor.

Nathan Bixler, who won in the "out-of-the-box" category, suggested locking cellphones during the day in small metal cages that block electronic signals. The students could access them with a key. Eventually, he envisions the walls of classrooms being lined with material that would deflect the signals, making the cages unnecessary.

Abigail Schaeffer proposed a vending machine to stow the devices, which students could access with a password. In a more lawyerly approach, Alex Newman wants students to sign a contract promising to keep cellphones packed away during school hours and face punishment if they don't. Who knows: Maybe the students' ingenuity – if not their self-restraint on the cellphone itself – will win out over politics.

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