Pam Weed
Butch Dill  /  AP
Pam Weed, the Jefferson County Board of Education's director of student services, sits at her desk in Birmingham, Ala. The school system recently decided against an outright ban on cell phones in the school district. Alabama was lifting the cell phone ban for its public schools just as New York City was implementing a crackdown.
updated 9/19/2006 7:54:31 PM ET 2006-09-19T23:54:31

Alabama was lifting the cell phone ban for its public schools just as New York City was implementing a crackdown.

Just about every school system in the nation is facing the same conundrum, with little consensus, about how to balance a modern reality against the need to maintain order in the classroom and the hallways.

With more than half the nation's teens now carrying them, cell phones have become an appendage that many refuse to leave at home, and which many parents want them to carry at all times for emergencies and general peace of mind.

At the same time, teachers and school administrators complain of growing disruptions, from phones going off in class to improper use of text messaging and cell phone cameras.

"Electronic bullying was starting to emerge. They were text messaging threats, sending intimidating messages to each other," said Randy Clegg, superintendent for the Clinton Community School District, an Iowa community about 30 miles from Dubuque and 190 from Chicago. "We're putting sophisticated stuff in the hands of teenagers and you deal with all the typical teenage stuff."

In July, the district adopted a policy where its 4,500 students are allowed to carry a phone, but risk having it confiscated until the end of the day if they use it or it goes off during school. A second infraction requires a meeting with a parent. Since the start of the new term, about three or four phones have been confiscated, said Clegg, estimating that more than three quarters of his system's middle and high school students — and a growing number in elementary school — now carry phones.

Wireless companies view school-age children are a key source of growth in a market where the number of first-time users is fast dwindling. While many are signed on through family plans that only generate an additional $10 or $20 a month in base charges, kids often ring up extra fees for text messaging, ringtones and video games.

At last count, nearly three-quarters of the nation's population had cell phones. By contrast, 53 percent of Americans aged 12 to 17 have them, according to a recent survey by Simmons Research. That figure, which Simmons extrapolates to roughly 13.1 million teens, is up from 39 percent in late 2004 and 33 percent in 2002, suggesting the trend has begun to accelerate.

"Part of the reality is that they're going to have it," said Clegg. He noted that he too found it comforting when his daughter, now in college, had a cell to call home from extracurricular activities, including long bus trips returning well after midnight from high school band competitions.

"I don't think it's appropriate in this day and age to do an outright ban," he said. "What are you going to do, check every kid who comes into school? That's not practical."

But that's precisely what New York City has been doing with greater frequency since April, when officials decided to more rigorously enforce a 17-year-old ban on portable electronics as part of a stepped-up sweep against weapons in schools. Now police units are setting up metal detectors at different locations in the 1,400-school system each day, a move that prompted a lawsuit by a group of parents.

From late April through the end of summer school, nearly 5,350 cell phones were confiscated, or more than twice as many as during the entire school year before the random screening began, said Keith Kalb, a city spokesman. Each school is left to set its own policies for returning confiscated devices, he said.

There are other big cities that are taking a similar zero- or low-tolerance approach: Detroit, for example, also bans the devices.

Many school systems across the nation officially ban phones — often under no-gadget rules adopted in the 1980's to combat beeper-toting drug dealers — but don't enforce those policies rigidly.

That type of disconnect prompted legislative action in Alabama, where a state law predating the cell boom had made possession of a phone in school punishable by suspension or expulsion. A few years ago, a surprise search at Ramsay High School in Birmingham meant to uncover contraband also led to the confiscation of 235 cell phones, said Rep. Oliver Robinson, a state legislator serving that city.

After parents complained, Robinson introduced a bill that took three tries to pass before it became law in June. The new law leaves it to each school system to set policy, and most have moved away from an outright ban, he said.

"I didn't want the administrators to be breaking the law, because they were breaking the law by allowing phones on campus," said Robinson, adding that he sympathizes with parents who want children to have phones. "When we were growing up, I could walk six miles home and never worry about anyone bothering me. We didn't know at that time there was such a thing as a sexual predator."

Freed of Alabama's state ban, the Jefferson County Board of Education decided in August to allow phones so long as they remain stashed away.

"I can certainly see after 9/11 why people would want to be able to communicate with their children," said Pam Weed, the board's director of student services for the 40,000-student system.

Some educators take an entirely different approach, leaving it to students to police themselves. At Seattle's private Lakeside School, once attended by Microsoft Corp. founder Bill Gates, students are free to use their phones.

"I try and remember to put it on vibrate before I go into class," said Nate Benjamin, a 17-year-old senior who's had a cell since he was 12.

Benjamin said he doesn't see cell phones abused in school. He's never seen kids using text messages or cell cameras for cheating. "The closest I've seen is kids may take a picture of the board in class" instead of taking notes, he said.

When phones do go off during class, "People roll their eyes and the teacher looks at them, like 'Come on,'" said Benjamin. "There are some kids that will pick it up and maybe start talking, and kids will look at them like, `What are you doing?'"

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