Disconnecting students from phones isn't easy

By Elisabeth Dyer
Published May 18, 2007

A ban on cell phones in the nation's biggest school system (New York City) is creating an uproar among parents and students alike, with teenagers sneaking their phones inside their lunches and under their clothes, and grown-ups insisting they need to stay in touch with their children in case of another crisis like Sept. 11. (Associated Press, May 11)

Here in Hillsborough County, the nation's eighth largest school system, a cell phone ban likely would evoke a similar response.

But three years ago, Florida passed a law allowing students to carry phones on campus for the same reason adults are protesting the New York ban.

"We changed the policy after 9/11, " said Hillsborough County School Board chairman Jack Lamb, because parents wanted to be able to contact their children in an emergency.

The only stipulation: Phones must be turned off during school hours.

Of course, any teacher or student will vouch that the rule is flounted constantly. Kids text from inside pockets, from under desks and in front of teachers.

"Knowing kids, I can understand that they would use them, " Lamb said.

It's so constant it becomes tedious to enforce. The phones are distracting, and some use them to videotape fights or snap indecent photos of other students or teachers to post online.

Or they cheat.

Last year, a Bradenton teen was caught using his phone to take pictures of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Olayinka Alege, assistant principal at Middleton High, is the student cell phone keeper. He collects about a dozen confiscated phones daily.

For a first violation, the student gets a warning, while the offender's parent has to pick up the phone. A second offense can warrant a suspension.

And on occasions where the student actually refuses to hand over the phone - that's actually happened, Alege said - it's a straight shot to suspension.

(Do not pass Go, do not collect 200 text messages.)

The problem's extent has teachers wondering whether an outright ban is the only real solution.

But just consider the work involved in detecting the contraband.

Sure, New York City administrators gained the extra benefit of unearthing cell phones when they used metal detectors to keep out weapons.

Still, students are sneaky. Some smuggle phones between two slices of bread. Others take the phone apart and carry the pieces inside before reassembling it.

It makes me wonder: Why don't they use devices that would block cell phone signals? I hear copper paint works.

Even better, use whatever Publix has going. I can never get a signal there.