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Posted: 9/29/2004 7:04:56 AM EDT
They buy the idea it's "jewelry".

Schools Relax Cellphone Bans, Nodding to Trend


LANSING, Mich. - Sitting in his second-period computer class at Eastern High School, Gray Taylor, 15, felt his cellphone vibrate. To avoid being caught by the teacher, he answered quietly - and discovered an unexpected caller.

"Why are you answering the phone in class?" Gray's mother asked. He whispered back, "You're the one who called me." His mother said she had intended to leave a question on Gray's voice mail.

Such scenes are playing out across the country, as hundreds of high schools have reluctantly agreed to relax their rules about cellphones in schools. Rather than banning the phones outright, as many once did, they are capitulating to parent demands and market realities, and allowing students to carry phones in school - though not to use them in class. The reversal is a significant change from policies of the 1990's, when school administrators around the country viewed cellphones as the tools of drug dealers. In Florida, carrying a cellphone in school could be punishable by a 10-day suspension. In Louisiana, it was deemed a crime, with a potential penalty of 30 days in jail.

But now the phones have become tools used by parents to keep in touch with, and keep track of, their children. And schools are facing a more basic reality: it is no longer possible to enforce such bans.

Thanks to the falling prices of mobile phones, and the aggressive efforts by carriers to market "family plans" to parents and teenagers, the phones have become so commonplace that trying to keep them out of schools would be like trying to enforce a ban on lip gloss or combs.

Over the last two years, more than half a dozen states, including Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan and Nevada, and numerous individual school districts, have either abolished or relaxed their bans. In June, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida signed a law, based on a proposal forwarded to the Legislature by a group of high school students, to no longer make possession of a phone in school a felony and leave punishment up to counties. Since July, half of Kentucky's district's have rescinded a ban on outright possession.

"There's a feeling across the land that it just ain't a big deal anymore," said William Scharff, president of the American Association of State Policy Services, a national association of school boards. "More and more states are taking a liberal attitude towards kids carrying phones."

About half of American young people from 13 to 17 are expected to have a cellphone by the end of 2004, according to the research firm Yankee Group. And in many high schools, including poor urban ones, administrators say the figure is closer to 90 percent.

The new policies vary widely, and in many cases they indicate a grudging capitulation by school administrators. While some schools permit phones to be displayed in plain sight, others require the phones to be stowed in purses, pants or backpacks. Some still ban certain kinds of phones, like those with cameras, fearing locker-room high jinks.

Most schools continue to forbid the use of phones and other electronics during class time. The gadgets are seen as offering too much temptation to stray from schoolwork or to cheat on tests, not just because they can be used for phone calls but also because they can be used to check the Internet, play games or send text messages to other students with phones. (Some high schools require students' hands to be on top of their desks at all times, to thwart under-desk messaging.)

But the nation's teachers are up against teenagers like Tina Burgess, a senior at Middleburg High School in Florida. Last year, as project for public speaking class, Tina and other students compiled research to challenge the state law that made it a felony to possess a cellphone in schools. The project piqued the interest of local legislators, who asked Tina and her classmates to present the case to a legislative panel last spring.

Tina summed up the students' argument that cellphones had become as common as wristwatches and should not be seen as any more disruptive or extraordinary. "To you, this is a tool," she told the lawmakers. "To me, this is like jewelry."

Around the nation, many parents say they have grown accustomed to the easy means of keeping tabs on their children.

In Lansing, Marikay Teremi, 40, said she thought of the cellphone she gave her daughter Sarah, a junior at Eastern High School, as a life line - whether as a way to know if her daughter might be late coming home from basketball practice or simply to stay in touch. "The cellphone is not for her convenience," Ms. Teremi said. "It's for her security. It's for my peace of mind."

Sarah, a junior who also plays on the volleyball team, says she likes being able to stay in touch, too. "I'm always checking in with my mom to make sure I'm not running too late," she said.

But some other parents say they wish Eastern High, a school of 1,500 students largely from poor neighborhoods, had never lifted the ban. The school did so last year, even while the statewide prohibition was still in place. At first, the school adopted an informal policy of letting students carry phones. Teachers and administrators say students would talk on the phones during classes, or play games or even use the cameras.

This year the school decided to tighten its informal policy, by adhering to the state's new law allowing cellphones to be in students' possession, but not openly displayed.

Theresa Gonzales, 43, has three teenagers at Eastern High, including two seniors, Robert Nick, 18, and Tiffany Nick, 17, who both have cellphones they paid for with money from summer jobs.

Even with the new, tougher strictures, Ms. Gonzales says her children's phones can be a distraction if they are used during class.

She says that if she needs to reach her children at school, she can do what parents have long done: call the school. And she dismisses a commonly heard argument in favor of cellphones: that they would be handy in a disaster like the Columbine shootings. "I can't live in total fear," Ms. Gonzales said.

Students at Eastern High said the new, tougher guidelines had not stopped the frequent use of cellphones at school. Restrooms are popular places for students to sneak phone calls. Some still take calls even in class - or play games under the desk.

Alicia Barajas, 17, the senior class president, said she was in her Advanced Placement English class recently when a student received a call - and ignored the substitute teacher's request to end it. "He was like, 'I've got to take this,' " Alicia said.

Around the country, schools that have relaxed bans, or that never had them, continue struggling to balance the needs of faculty, parents and students against the reality of a ubiquitous technology.

At Mission High School in San Francisco, the city's poorest, with 950 students, the principal, Kevin Truitt, said that the school had never banned cellphones but did require that they be kept out of sight and not be used during classes.

A first violation of the cellphone rules draws a warning. On a second offense, the school confiscates the phone, and it regularly collects a dozen or more a day.

In the past, Mr. Truitt said, he asked the parents to come to school to retrieve the phones. But late last year, that changed, after parents began complaining. Now, students themselves can retrieve their confiscated phones at the end of the day.

The parents consider the phones their children's personal property, he said. Besides, he added, "they want to be able to call in and check with their kids."
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