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    Campus phone bans: On hold?

    School districts across the country are rethinking rules that forbid the use of cell phones on campus.

    [Times photo: Bill Serne]
    Ashlie Briggs talks on a cell phone as her friend Kelly Reaves watches Tuesday in the parking lot of Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg. "I'm always using mine for confirming or canceling appointments and keeping in touch after school with home," Briggs said.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 10, 2002

    It's an open secret at many local high schools: While cellular phones are officially forbidden, they're stashed in plenty of book bags and lockers.

    "I keep it on vibrate," sophomore Robert Orozco said Tuesday afternoon, after whipping out his phone and dialing his brother in front of Tampa's Robinson High School. "A lot of people have cell phones."

    Soon, he may not have to hide it.

    In the jittery aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, parents want a direct line to their children -- classroom or not. School districts are responding by relaxing cell phone bans from California to Maryland.

    "What has evolved is the result of the Sept. 11 disaster," said Hillsborough County schools spokesman Mark Hart. "Cell phones are a means of parents staying in touch with their children. It's really a sign of the times."

    Hernando County in February began allowing middle and high school students to carry phones at school; students there are free to dial up during lunch.

    The school districts in Pinellas and Pasco counties are recommending that students be allowed to carry cell phones as long as they are turned off and stowed during school hours. The Citrus County School Board debated the issue Tuesday and tentatively agreed to maintain its ban on cell phones. A final decision will be made in May.

    Hillsborough County school administrators are likely to strike the cell phone prohibition from the student handbook next year.

    The stand is a reversal from those in previous years. School districts have long considered cell phones to be one more headache on campus. At best, they were seen as a ringing distraction. At worst, access to drug dealers.

    Some districts, such as Hillsborough, confiscate phones when they're found on students, and parents must visit the school to retrieve them.

    Others, such as Pinellas, have more stringent rules, although the School Board will consider changing its policy next month. The Student Code of Conduct says students can be expelled, suspended or reassigned for carrying cells.

    In reality, a violation has never been so harshly punished. In most cases, teachers give stern looks or threaten confiscation.

    "We mostly tell them to put them away," said Nancy Zambito, a Pinellas district director of operations. "Cell phones are part of our culture now."

    One factor that Pasco County administrators considered in their recommendation to rescind the ban was that teachers generally look the other way. "People thought it was kind of hypocritical to not enforce it when we know many kids have them," said Al Bashaw, a former principal and current director of student services.

    Hillsborough students aren't much dissuaded from carrying cell phones to school because the ban essentially lacks teeth, said Bruce Peck, a sophomore at Robinson High School in south Tampa. Not only can phones be heard ringing in the halls between classes, Peck said, but they often chime during class.

    "People get their phones taken way every day," Peck said outside the school. "It's funny."

    At Robinson, about 35 or 40 phones have been confiscated this year, said Polly Demma, a reading resource specialist and school spokesperson. The district doesn't specifically target phones but nabs them when they're visible.

    Demma is sympathetic.

    "I can see a need for cell phones. A lot of kids don't go home after school, and parents need to be able to get ahold of them."

    Not everyone wants the ban nixed.

    Several school administrators in Pinellas worry that if the policy is weakened, they'll have to spend more time investigating stolen or lost phones.

    Sarah Norris, who was picking up her granddaughter, a Robinson ninth-grader, after school Tuesday, said changing the policy will mean less concentration.

    "That will distract them," Norris said. "I think they can wait or call the (school) office."

    But some school officials say access to home has become more difficult in recent years as pay phones have disappeared. Phone companies have pulled many from campuses as cell phones have undermined their usefulness.

    "We don't really have the phones available for students to use," said Patricia O'Neil, assistant principal of St. Petersburg's Northeast High School. "We have the problem because students have to have a way to get in touch."

    It doesn't look as if the sudden acceptance of cell phones will rub off on pagers, though.

    Those will still be verboten. That didn't seem to bother several teenagers, who said pagers went out of vogue among the textbook-toting set years ago.

    "They're for losers," said Robinson High student Orozco.

    -- Staff writers Kent Fischer and Robert King contributed to this report.

    School cell phone policies

    PASCO: Pasco is reconsidering the district's ban of cell phones on school grounds. Administrators will soon recommend that the School Board change the policy to allow possession of cell phones during the school day, but not the display or use of the phones. The change would affect high school and middle school students.

    PINELLAS: The Student Code of Conduct says possessing cell phones on campus is grounds for suspension, expulsion or reassignment. In reality, few students are suspended for carrying cell phones, though many phones get confiscated. In May, the School Board will consider changing the policy to let middle and high school students carry cells as long as they are turned off during school. Under the new rules, a principal could allow cell use during lunch.

    HILLSBOROUGH: Administrators are likely to strike the cell phone ban from next year's student handbook. A decision will be made in a few months. In the meantime, phones are confiscated, and parents must come to school to retrieve them. And while they are plucked from lockers during drug sweeps, school security officials do not target cell phones specifically.

    HERNANDO: In January, the county School Board decided to allow middle and high school students to use cell phones before or after school or during lunch, beginning in February. Students are allowed to carry them to class, but use during class is prohibited. The move was meant to replace pay phones that were being removed from campuses.

    CITRUS: Students can't have cell phones on campus. The district had considered whether to let students possess them as long as they did not use them. But they were concerned that schools might be sending the wrong message if they are lax in enforcing the ban.

    The School Board debated the issue Tuesday and tentatively agreed to maintain the ban.

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