By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 2/3/2010 9:11:01 AM ET 2010-02-03T14:11:01

More than 100 students were suspended last month at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven, Conn. They weren’t bullies. They weren’t cheating. They weren’t caught smoking in the bathrooms.

They had cell phones.

Michelle Wade, a spokeswoman for the New Haven Public Schools, said students had been warned since September that cell phones and other portable electronics weren’t allowed on school grounds.

“It was getting just too disruptive to the learning process,” Wade said.

The school’s total ban is at one extreme of a debate under way in schools across the country. As ever more powerful cell phones come closer to mimicking the laptop computers many pupils carry each day, teachers and administrators are wrestling with whether their utility as a teaching tool outweighs the disruptions they can pose in the classroom.

“Cell phones aren’t going away,” said Brian Begley, principal of Millard North High School in Omaha, Neb., which loosened its ban at the beginning of the school year in August.

Pupils can now use their phones during lunch, and, what is more significant, teachers have the discretion to allow them in class, even working them into lessons.

By focusing “less on the negative and more on the positive, we feel it can be a real plus for our kids,” said Aaron Bearinger, who teaches business at Millard North, where he crafted a project for his students that involved their calling area businesses from class.

To students, a ban that isn’t
Cell phones have long bedeviled educators, who have extensive research to back up their complaints that the devices suck away their texting students’ attention and, increasingly, their academic honor.

That’s why 69 percent of American high schools have banned their use or even possession on school grounds, according to figures compiled by CommonSense Media, a nonprofit group that studies children’s use of technology. But those policies don’t work.

Read the CommonSense Media report on cheating (PDF)

But the American Association of School Administrators itself argues the other side, promoting the use of cell phones in class as “genuine educational tools.”

“Handheld devices like cell phones, iPhones, BlackBerrys and iTouch are beginning to offer applications that enhance classroom learning by engaging kids to use tools they are constantly using anyway,” Daniel A. Domenech, the association’s executive director, wrote in an essay last fall.

The evidence suggests that the bans, however well-intentioned, don’t work.

Sixty-five percent of all students who responded to the CommonSense Media Media survey said that they use their phones at school. At schools that ban them, 63 percent use them anyway.

The Benenson Strategy Group (the pollster for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign) conducted the survey, interviewing more than 1,000 students in grades 7 to 12, along with more than 1,000 parents. It reported a margin of sampling error of 3 percentage points among the student population.

The figures, which were released in August just before the current academic year began, are consistent with previous studies reported by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the American Association of School Administrators.

Texting on school time
More than 70 percent of American high schoolers carry a cell phone, Pew reported in June. CommonSense Media found that they send about 440 text messages a week, a quarter of those — more than a hundred a week — while in class.

Austin Keim, a junior at Round Rock High School in Round Rock, Texas, is one of them. He said he sent text messages from class — “just to make time pass, I guess” — even though the school banned cell phones in the classroom.

The devices become much more than a texting distraction once students figure out just what they can do for them.

The most advanced devices, like Apple Inc.’s iPhone, are really just slimmed-down versions of full laptop computers, complete with communications and Internet suites, a library’s worth of reference software and GPS location services.

That makes it easy to cheat. And make no mistake — American students are cheating their thumbs off.

Across the board, cheating takes off
Two-thirds of all students questioned by CommonSense Media said their classmates used their cell phones to cheat on their classwork. More than a third admitted having actually done so themselves. The percentages were roughly the same across all student populations — in private and public schools, among boys and girls, even among honors students.

Storing notes on a phone to help ace a quiz is the most common behavior, with 26 percent of all American students’ admitting to having done it at least once. But there are numerous other creative ways to sucker the teacher:

  • 25 percent said they had text-messaged a friend to get the answer to a tough question during a quiz.
  • 20 percent said they had searched the Internet to get the answers during a quiz.
  • 17 percent said they had taken pictures of quiz pages to give to their friends who might be taking the same quiz later.

Other rule-skirting practices include coordinating cheating and alerting fellow students that a teacher — or worse, the principal — is headed their way, said Gaylene Cruz, assistant principal at George Washington High School in Mangilao, Guam.

The school allows students to have phones, but only if they’re stowed and turned off during class hours. That’s so students can contact their parents in an emergency, but “kids will be texting other kids to say that we’re heading this direction or letting us know and giving them information before we even get there,” Cruz said.

“They’re using it for other things like selling drugs, threats and all kinds of stuff,” she said. “So it’s becoming a major issue.”

Gagging the phone
Recognizing that kids will use their phones if they can, a growing number of school districts are exploring other ways to shut them down.

Rather than suspend students who use their phones, administrators in DeKalb County, in northeast Alabama, began confiscating phones this school year, keeping them for 30 days and searching them for evidence of cheating, pornography or other “illicit activities.” If such evidence is found, it’s turned over to the sheriff’s office.

The new policy was enacted after several students were found to have been sending sexually explicit photos or messages on their phones, Superintendent Charles Warren said.

“We’ve had students taking pictures of other students using the restroom [or] changing clothes in PE,” Warren said.

In eastern Washington, administrators at Mount Spokane High School bought a device called a jammer, which blocks cell phone transmissions, including text messages. They abandoned the idea after a three-day test last year when school district lawyers advised them that cell phone jammers are illegal under federal law.

Aaron Bearinger, the Omaha teacher who uses them in his business courses, concedes that cell phones can be a problem.

“They’ll have a hoodie, and they’ll have their hands inside their hoodie texting,” Bearinger said. “The students are so adept at texting they don’t even have to look at their cell phone anymore.”

But he and other teachers and administrators say cell phones are too valuable a tool to leave unused in the classroom.

Promoters point out that students can take pictures of class projects to show their parents, allowing parents to be involved in group class activities. They can text-message missed assignments to classmates. And they can keep better classroom notes by simply recording a teacher’s lecture and snapping a picture of the board.

Rewarding proper behavior
As mobile technology advances, cell phones or other mobile devices with phone capabilities could become the only computer a student ever uses, supplanting the laptops that sprout like wildflowers on school desks today. If you ban the phone, you remove all of that technology from the teaching environment, proponents argue.

“The integration of technology into learning is no longer the province of the desktop or the laptop,” said Domenech, the head of the school administrators group. “... Education is missing the boat by not taking advantage of the love affair between our kids and technology.”

Some school systems, like the Henrico County Public Schools in Virginia, are turning enforcement on its head. After a rash of cell phone violations last spring — encompassing everything from talking on phones in class to cyberbullying to “sexting,” the sending of nude photographs to fellow students — district officials decided to change course. This school year, students who follow the rules will get rewards, like prize raffles and pizza parties.

“We’re hopeful that the incentive plans that are going into place will be a carrot instead of a stick,” said Eric Jones, the district’s director of high school education.

At Harry D. Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Ill., Principal Michael Bregy has gone even further. When school opened last fall, he gave out his own cell phone number to all 2,500 or so students. After he got 100 text messages in the first week, he was forced to upgrade his phone plan.

“I’ll get some like ‘I can see you at the football game’ or ‘Hey, Mr. Bregy, I’m right behind you,’” Bregy said.  “And that’s OK. It’s my responsibility to be as accessible as possible.”

On Thanksgiving, Bregy — who keeps a chart of every text he receives — got more than 175 messages. Most of them said “Happy Thanksgiving” and “Thanks for caring,” he said.

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