Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/6/2006 7:35:22 PM ET 2006-09-06T23:35:22

As students return to school this fall, many of them will be carrying cell phones — the must-have accessory to end all accessories. They’ll also be packing iPods, graphing calculators and maybe PDAs.

Schools have accepted that students are coming in with more technology, but they’re still struggling with how to balance it with a regulated learning environment.

While some schools will let them get away with texting and IM’ing during study breaks, others are more likely to bar them. While some — like the nation’s largest school system in New York ban phones outright — others have enacted rules to keep the offending technology out of sight in lockers, bookbags and purses.

Down Under, iPods have already been banned in one private school in Sydney, which blamed the popular devices for encouraging the isolation of students not only from one another, but also from society.

But in the United States, the dominance of the iPod as the music player of choice has prompted at least one school — a private school on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, New York — to use it to their advantage, incorporating it into foreign language lessons and homework.

In that same vein, teachers at New Hampshire’s Exeter High School have used Web sites such as HomeWorkNow.com for class assignments and homework, which students can access using their cell phones.

In Charles County, Maryland, the Superintendent has recently changed guidelines to allow cell phones on school property, but they must be turned off during school hours. The change allows the phones to be turned on after school while attending — and not participating — in public events on the grounds, such as football games.

In Indiana, students keep cell phones in their lockers, or else suffer the penalties, which include losing the phone or being expelled.

But by far, the biggest battle over cell phones rages in New York City schools, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg has carried out a ban on the devices. The mayor and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein have said the ban is necessary to combat cheating, illicit photos and activities. Generally, being disruptive to the teaching/learning environment. That, in turn, caused students to come up with creative ways of sneaking in their phones and their parents to loudly protest the ban.

A group of parents went beyond talking and filed a lawsuit this summer to overturn the ban, mostly on the grounds of safety concerns for their children. For them, the phone is the only link to their children during the day while they’re at work, and removing that lifeline for them is unacceptable.

The lawsuit, posted online by Morgan Lewis attorneys, calls the ban “overboard” and phones “vital communication tools.” It objected to the confiscation of 800 phones in the spring, a move made by schools when the phones went through metal security screening. That number climbed to the thousands in a few weeks.

For New York students — who commute to school using not only school transportation but public subways and buses and by walking and through rides — cell phones are an easy and reassuring way for parents to keep track of their mobile progeny. The suit also mentions 9/11 and other terrorist threats as a legitimate catalyst for parents who need to stay in touch with their children.

For now, it’s a stalemate, a busy signal stalled on whether or not schools can handle mobile technology’s inevitable incursion into daily life.

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