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Officials rethink phone wars

Published April 14, 2007


All during second-period English, Tina Mars thinks about the black-and-silver cell phone in her purse. She knows it's against the rules to have it turned on during school hours. But she can't bear the thought of waiting until day's end to check her messages.

The minute the teacher's back is turned, Tina's phone is in her hand and switched on - an offense that could cost her dearly if caught. But to Tina, who uses 500 cell phone minutes a month and sends as many as 200 text messages a day, the risk is worth it.

"I'd feel left out if I didn't get to talk to my friends," says Tina, a Dixie Hollins High School senior. "The only way I could stop using my cell phone at school would be if everyone else stopped using theirs."

Despite what goes on behind teachers' backs, the Pinellas district for years has had a strict policy banning the use of cell phones and other electronics during school hours. Hillsborough County's policy is more strict, and district officials there are talking about possibly clamping down more.

But Pinellas is toying with a different approach: developing an "acceptable use" policy that would relax the present ban. The shift comes as educators, struggling to monitor a policy some say is unenforceable, wonder if they're fighting a war that already has been lost.

"Kids and their electronics are joined at the hip," said Michael Bessette, a Pinellas superintendent in charge of middle and high schools. "There were good reasons why we said no to cell phones in the past, but I think it's time we started asking, 'Are there acceptable times when kids can use them?' "

Issue provokes debate

The cell phone issue came to a head recently when School Board member Janet Clark tried to leave a message on her daughter's cell phone during school hours. To Clark's surprise, her daughter answered.

When Clark mentioned the incident at a meeting, superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he would ask principals whether the phone policy should be revisited.

That provoked lively discussion at an April 5 principal's meeting. Leading the charge for a more lenient policy was Raymond J. McNulty, a consultant at the International Center for Leadership in Education. McNulty, who occasionally attends district meetings at Wilcox's invitation, told principals schools should be teaching appropriate use of technology rather than fighting kids about phone use.

"You begin the school year by establishing the basic parameters," McNulty said in an interview last week. "You basically say, 'Here's an acceptable cell phone use policy at our school.' "

Some Pinellas schools already have moved away from the "turned-off-and-out-of-sight" policy. Palm Harbor University High, for example, allows students to use cell phones before school and at lunch. A similar policy exists at Gibbs High.

"We definitely don't want cell phones on during instructional time," said Gibbs principal Antelia Campbell. "But the schools that completely outlaw them and collect them from students have bins full of them. That's not a battle I'm willing to fight."

Other schools adhere strictly to the policy. Dixie Hollins principal Michael Bohnet's well-worn copy of the Code of Student Conduct has a yellow sticky note marking the page on cell phones. The text is highlighted in green and underlined in black.

"When parents come in to pick up their child's cell phone and say, 'Show me where it says they did something wrong,' I make them a copy," Bohnet said.

And then there are principals like Fred Ulrich at Largo Middle School, who try to enforce the rules without being too hard on kids. Ulrich thinks a friendly reminder to put their phones away works better than the threat of punishment.

"They're not making drug deals or calling bookies," Ulrich said. "I try to work with them."

Some like phones on

More than 2,000 students arrive each morning at Largo High, and freshman Sunshine Green estimates at least 90 percent of them bring cell phones.

Sunshine, 16, got her first cell phone at 12. Her grandmother recently bought her a $300 phone with a built-in MP3 player. Her friend, Danielle Larson, 15, has a phone that takes pictures and video.

Each estimates racking up 100 text messages a day. Mostly, they communicate with friends. But the phones also come in handy when they need to talk to their parents, they say.

Many parents want their children to have cell phones at school, and some even want the phones turned on, at least in vibrate mode. Jeff Mars, Tina's dad, doesn't approve of using phones during class, but it eases his mind to know his daughter is reachable.

Wilcox told board members last week about a recent conversation he had with Clearwater High principal Keith Mastorides. "Keith basically said, 'This is a war you're going to lose,' " Wilcox said.

Wilcox acknowledges the increase in students bringing phones to class has fueled teacher frustration. That's one reason he thinks an "acceptable use" policy might be good.

Tracey Keim, an English teacher at St. Petersburg High, said hounding kids to keep their phones off detracts from teaching time, and she thinks if students were allowed to use phones during breaks, they might not be as tempted to use them in class.

In Hillsborough County, where students are allowed to carry phones on campus but not other electronic devices, administrators are forming a committee to explore ways of reducing phone violations without suspending children.

Assistant superintendent Lewis Brinson said it's not likely the district will relax its policy. "To say that everybody is breaking the rule, so we should get rid of the rule, would be like saying everybody on the interstate is speeding, so we should relax the speed limit."

'Kids ... bend the rules'

Back in Tina Mars' English class, she has learned through text message that a friend can't attend track practice after school. Now she's wondering if another friend might want to go shopping Sunday.

Does Tina think allowing cell phone use during breaks would stop students from text messaging in class?

"Probably not," she says. "Kids will always bend the rules. They'll always try to push things a little further."

Fast Facts:

Schools' cell phone and electronic device policies

Pasco County: Students are allowed to have cell phones in their possession, but they are not permitted to have them turned on or in use during school hours without prior administrative permission.

Hillsborough County: Cell phones shall not be activated or used during school hours or on buses. The policy also bans personal electronic devices such as CD players and electronic games from school.

Pinellas County: Middle and high school students can carry cell phones and other electronic devices, but they must be turned off and out of sight, unless an administrator gives permission to do something else. Elementary students are not allowed to have them at school, unless an administrator has given them written permission.

By the numbers

A survey of students in five classes at St. Petersburg High School showed that:

95% have cell phones.

97% of those who have cell phones bring them to school.

88% know the district's policy on cell phone use.

90% of students who know the policy disobey it.

95% of the students who disobey the rule text message during class.

24% say they have used their cell phones to cheat.

28% say they have had their cell phones confiscated.

[Last modified April 14, 2007, 01:27:22]

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