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Eye on the News

Marc Epstein
Our Schools’ Cellular Plague
Mobile phones encourage theft and assault—but banning them in schools isn’t working.
12 September 2007

As students in New York City’s public schools return to class for the new school year, the great cell-phone debate is sure to reignite. Student use of cell phones in schools is currently banned, but last summer, the City Council voted 46–2 for a resolution that would give students the right to carry their phones to school. Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed the bill, but the council overrode his veto on Monday.

The bill is largely symbolic, since it doesn’t change the existing ban, which many parents oppose. During a previous confrontation with Bloomberg over the ban of cell phones in schools, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum delivered a raft of angry e-mails to City Hall. One parent charged, “These all-out bans brought on by life’s minor inconveniences hint at thoughtless fascism.” Another parent claimed that cell phones were “paramount” for communicating with children and ensuring school safety.

Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein argue that cell phones disrupt learning, encourage criminal activity, and precipitate violence, and they happen to be right. Indeed, New York’s public schools overflow with undisciplined, defiant kids, as well as a resident criminal population that has made cell-phone theft the crime du jour. Cell phones are the favorite pickings for muggers in and around schools, who then sell them secondhand. They also accounted for a sizable percentage of the discipline problems that I confronted as a dean at Jamaica High School in Queens.

My first encounter with cell phones in school occurred six years ago, when I attempted to take one away from a student who was talking on it in the hallway. The student grabbed my walkie-talkie as I held onto his jacket. He managed to wiggle out of his jacket and shirt, and fled the building bare-chested. Luckily, it was February, and he didn’t get far. A few years and several hundred cell-phone incidents later, I confiscated a phone from a female student just a few feet away from the dean’s office. Then the phone’s actual owner, a 17-year-old freshman, grabbed me from behind and wrestled me for it. He already had two other phones in his possession. I wound up in the hospital with a back injury requiring surgery; the student was arrested.

My experiences are hardly unique. Most schools struggle to enforce the cell-phone ban, and students find ways to get around it. Under the current system, schools remind students over the public address system that cell-phone use is not permitted, but these constant warnings do nothing to deter rebellious students from using phones in class. A small minority of schools use an electronic scanning system, similar to those used at airports, to check for phones as students enter the building. When students violate the policy, teachers or administrators confiscate their phones and “voucher” them—recording their information and storing them in a safe. Some students don’t cooperate and are suspended for a day or two, but the suspensions are toothless, and the threat of expulsion barely exists anymore. In any case, students cannot get their confiscated phones back unless a parent or guardian accompanies them. Often, no guardian appears to claim the phones, and the schools are stuck holding them.

While Bloomberg is correct about the impact of cell phones on the educational environment, the ban effectively foists the problem onto the shoulders of teachers, who have to play policemen with a defiant student population. I’ve seen assistant principals waste hours persuading one cell-phone abuser after another to surrender their phones or face suspension, a demoralizing and self-defeating exercise. Add to this the liability for schools when phones go missing.

According to Tweed statistics, the number of phones confiscated this past year was only in the low thousands; if the schools really enforced the ban, that number would be much greater, perhaps in the hundreds of thousands. And herein lies the problem: full enforcement of Bloomberg’s “zero-tolerance” policy would require enormous resources, because the scale of the problem is too large. Setting up a space within schools to administer a comprehensive vouchering system is a logistical nightmare, requiring a massive increase in the number of school aides to pull off. The city’s latest idea is to create lockers outside of schools, charging students 50 cents a day to store their phones. But the spectacle of thousands of kids exiting school to get to their phones would present yet another set of problems. How would the schools handle vandalized boxes, for example, and the fights and thefts that will occur at dismissal as kids collectively retrieve their phones?

A more sensible long-term approach for the city would be to explore the use of technology to limit or block the phones’ capabilities inside school buildings, as state senator Tom Duane, for one, has suggested. Already, a number of private schools have begun using electronic jamming to block cell-phone transmission. Some of these schools use the technology only in parts of the school—like classrooms—while allowing transmission in the lobbies in case of emergencies. Of course, the cost of such technology, as well as numerous issues surrounding jurisdiction and implementation, would have to be resolved before such a system could be adopted. But New York’s public schools would be well advised to explore the use of technology to minimize the cell-phone problem, rather than wasting time and resources confiscating the phones themselves.

Marc Epstein, a teacher at Jamaica High School, served as its dean of students for six years. He has written extensively on school violence.

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