Schools wrestle with cell rules, are phones nuisance or valuable safety net?

April 23, 2007 at 3:04 am

ORLANDO SENTINEL

Published: April 23, 2007 

By Susan Jacobson | Sentinel Staff Writer

Zachary Grossman mowed lawns and did odd jobs to pay for his cell phone, which was glued to his ear for most of his 30-minute lunch on a recent day at Edgewater High.
“I could live without it, but it would be a lot harder,” said Zachary, a senior at the Orlando school.

Most young people apparently feel the same way. Several national surveys show that up to 80 percent of teens own cell phones, and nearly half use them at school.
To guard against phones interfering with learning, most Central Florida districts prohibit their use during school hours. Skepticism toward these teen toys continues even as parents, teachers and some principals push for looser restrictions.

Next month, the Volusia County School Board is expected to consider whether to relax its rules for middle and high schools and let each campus set its own cell-phone policy.
The change would codify a practice that DeLand High has been experimenting with for about a year. The school allows students to use their phones during class changes and at lunchtime.

Principal Mitch Moyer said his staff decided it was best to treat the students like young adults and trust them to obey the rules. Some teachers even allow pupils working silently on art projects or studying independently in class to listen to music on their iPods. For the most part, the plan has worked, Moyer said.

“We have to have a balance between what the parameters are for what’s acceptable and how to stay in touch with young people,” he said.

Many parents make the case that cell phones are essential in case of an emergency at school. After last week’s shooting rampage at Virginia Tech, phones lit up across the college campus as parents called to learn whether their children were safe.
Gamal Mack of east Orange County said he is glad his son, Omar, a freshman at University High School, had a cell phone when a student was stabbed to death on campus last October. Another student is on trial.

“I was very relieved when he [Omar] called,” said Mack, whose sister graduated from Virginia Tech. “Without these phones, parents may lose their minds in the case of an emergency situation, like what happened at Virginia Tech.”
Sense of comfort
Sally Seidel, chairwoman of the Volusia schools District Advisory Committee, said the Sept. 11 terror attacks convinced her that a cell phone for her daughter was a good idea. Now, she feels a sense of comfort knowing she can contact 14-year-old Heather at DeLand Middle School.

“Those kind of things weren’t happening when my 28-year-old was that age,” said Seidel, a mother of four girls. “We just don’t live in the June Cleaver days anymore. And children sometimes aren’t safe waiting outside of the school grounds anymore.”
Not all school districts agree.

After a rise in cyber-bullying using cell phones, the Palm Beach School Board last month decided to lobby the state to let districts banish the phones. A law passed in 2004 requires Florida districts to let students possess wireless-communications devices on school property and at school functions.

In Milwaukee, however, the school system banned cell phones in January after students used them to summon reinforcements to a brawl. Public schools in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and Boston forbid cell phones on campus because they cause distractions and can be used to cheat, call in bomb threats and make drug deals.
Various Central Florida school officials have complained in recent years about cell-phone problems: cheating by sending text messages, distracting rings in class and use of phone cameras to photograph students in locker rooms and restrooms.
A year ago, a Lake County teen was accused of using cell phones to call in bomb threats to his high school.
Tough to control
Nonetheless, administrators at many schools say they don’t have the time or the will to police every cell-phone violation. At Deltona High, which has nearly 3,000 students, Principal Gary Marks said teachers and administrators clamp down only on the more egregious violations.

“If we were to write referrals, it would be literally hundreds,” Marks said. “It has become such a pervasive electronic device in our society that it is almost impossible to monitor.”

Seminole schools have a similar philosophy, Superintendent Bill Vogel said. Although the phones are supposed to be out of sight, administrators on each campus have discretion over how violations are handled.

“A lot depends on the circumstances,” Vogel said.

Phones are not the first electronic gizmos to confound the schools, of course. A decade ago, pagers were a prime headache, said Dennis Neal, principal at Heritage Middle School in Deltona.

Rob Anderson, principal of Edgewater High, said it’s hard to clamp down on cell phones without forbidding iPods and other devices because many phones today also act as music players, cameras and personal organizers that share some functions with computers, such as e-mail.

Darrein Pleasant, 14, a seventh-grader at Teague Middle School in Altamonte Springs, said he takes his phone to school but uses it exclusively to keep in touch with his mom.
“I’ll talk to her the whole way walking home,” Darrein said.

To many older students, however, the phone is a much more sophisticated tool.
Edgewater senior George Georgiev, 18, talks on his $600 phone, but he also can download music, shoot videos and text-message friends. He said he earned the money for the device, now about a year old, when he worked as a supermarket bagger.
Already, he is thinking of trading up to a newer phone with more bells and whistles.

“These things age quick,” he said. “Every day, something else comes out.”
Gary Rudman, whose California company, GTR Consulting, specializes in marketing research on kids, teens and young adults, said youths such as Georgiev find it crucial to stay in the loop.

“This is the world they were born into, and they have been on a treadmill trying to keep pace with all the new technology,” Rudman said.

Tom Donohue, professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said cell phones help youths stake out their place in the peer pecking order.
‘Declaring status’
“It’s a way of validating yourself on a continual basis,” Donohue said. “It’s a way of declaring status.”

Ken Trump of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm, takes a hard line on phones. He said their popularity is no reason to allow them on campus.

“We have rules in the schools banning everything from gum to guns,” he said. “Just because the rules are hard to enforce doesn’t mean you ban the rules.”
Although mothers and fathers would welcome a call from their children during a school emergency, Trump fears hordes of alerted parents getting in the way of rescue operations.

“The last thing you want in the middle of the crisis is a 14-year-old text-messaging on what they think is going on and not paying attention to the adult who’s giving them directions that may save their life,” he said.

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Entry filed under: Press.

Millennials’ thrive on choice, instant results For kids today, why talk when you can send a text? Texting comes with its own language. For some, it’s non-stop.


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