Sunday, May 07, 2006

Many Parents Want Schools to Allow Cell Phones

In “A Christmas Story,” a classic Christmas film based on a short story by the late Hoosier humorist Jean Shepherd there is a scene where Ralphie’s teacher confiscates a bunch of fake teeth from the class. She places them in a drawer that has all sorts of noise makers and paraphernalia that used to be in a child’s arsenal of things they could use to torment the teacher.

In some ways things haven’t changed too much. Kids still bring yo-yos, high-bounce balls, and rubber bands. But, thanks to technology, kids have a whole new collection of contraband they can sneak into the classroom.

These include portable CD players, iPods, and cell phones.

But many parents support the ability of their children to take the latter device to school, although most schools still ban it. The reason is safety, as well as parental convenience.

In New York City, where the use of metal detectors has netted hundreds of cell phones, many parents, teachers, and even city lawmakers are lobbying the city’s school system to permit students to bring cell phones to school.

The Mayor and school superintendent, however, are still opposed to the idea. They say students can use cell phones as entertainment devices in classrooms, much like mp3 players. Or, more nefariously, phones can be used to take clandestine locker room pictures or even to cheat on tests.

While it’s true that students can make use of cell phones in inappropriate ways during school hours, it is that behavior which should be punished when and if it happens. Simply having a cell phone while at school causes no disruption or distraction.

When my son was going to Edinburgh High School, I provided him with a beeper. A portable cell phone was too expensive for most students in those days. But I needed a way to contact him when school was out. We had code numbers for various messages.

The school had a policy against pagers and similar devices, but I asked and received permission from the principal at the time for him to carry it with him as long as he kept it turned off during class.

Today, I’m a teacher. The vast majority of my seventh graders have cell phones. If I see one of them with it out in class I give them one warning to put it away and then I confiscate it if I see it again. If one of the students actually uses the cell phone in class, I confiscate it right away.

As a teacher, it I can see cell phones as just another piece of contraband we have to watch out for. But as a parent, I can clearly see the safety benefits of kids having them at school.

Students can use them to call their parents if there is a change of plans, if the buses are running late, or for any number of good reasons. Parents can keep tabs on their youngsters by giving them a call if they are late getting home or to ask them to pick up something from the store on the way home.

In New York schools, and in most school systems that still ban the devices, enforcement of the ban is often minimal. As long as kids aren’t using them in class, most teachers and even administrators will allow students to carry them.

Still, it’s time for school boards to realize that cell phones can be life savers. In emergency situations quick action is needed. Students with phones can provide that quick action by calling 911.

In a time when parents worry about the safety of their children even while at school, cell phones can provide a little bit of peace of mind. If students abuse their privilege, they should be dealt with accordingly. But to ban cell phones outright is no longer a prudent school policy.

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