No camera phones allowed

Messaging: Cellular text and photo missives put a new face on educators' age-old worries about test-time cheating and locker-room hijinks.

March 04, 2004|By Suzanne Pardington | Suzanne Pardington,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. -- Teachers thought they had seen it all when it comes to cheating. A tiny cheat sheet tucked up a sleeve. A math formula saved on a calculator. An essay pulled off the Internet. But now sneaky students have found a new high-tech way to ask friends covertly for help on tests.

Students can send silent questions and answers to one another right under teachers' noses on cell phones with built-in cameras and text messaging.

Jan Bunten, a math teacher at College Park High in Pleasant Hill, Calif., was shocked last fall when a student showed her a picture on his cell phone of a test question sent to him by a friend in another class. She also has heard of students taking pictures of tests and posting them online.

"Catching kids cheating is just a nightmare," Bunten said. "It's not nearly as easy as it used to be."

Cell phones -- considered a must-have accessory by teens and a security measure by many parents -- are pervasive at middle and high schools, and cameras and text messaging are increasingly common features.

A 2002 state law permits cell phones on school grounds in California, but most schools do not allow them to be used, or even visible, during class.

Still, it can be hard to spot a small cell phone in a large class. Some teen-agers are so good at spelling out text messages on phone key pads that they can do it without looking, while the phone is hidden up a sleeve, in the big front pocket of a hooded sweat shirt or under a desk.

It is also not obvious when a student is taking a picture, because some cell-phone cameras don't make noise.

Some students said text messaging is more likely than taking pictures as a cheating tool, but they have heard of both happening.

Mike, a College Park High student who asked that his last name not be used, admits that he has used text messaging to cheat. For example, he might send a student on the other side of the classroom a message saying something like "What's the answer to number one?" Teachers do not seem to notice, he said.

"People rarely do it, but if it's a really important problem and it's too hard to figure out, you go and ask someone else," he said.

A friend once sent him a photo of a test question. He laughed when he saw it, because he didn't realize a camera phone could be used that way.

In addition to cheating, some teachers and administrators are worried that students will take photos of other students undressed in locker rooms or in other inappropriate ways.

When Rich Puppione, senior director of pupil services in the Pleasanton, Calif., school district, first heard reports of problems with students in other school districts posting locker-room photos on Web sites, he said he thought, "Oh my God, the job has just gotten harder."

The four high schools in the neighboring Acalanes, Calif., district are planning to post signs in locker rooms saying that cell phones are not permitted. No cases of unauthorized locker room photos have been reported, but the district wants to clamp down before it becomes a problem, said Beverly Sadler, associate superintendent.

"It's just a new temptation with a new toy," she said.

Several other high school administrators said they are not aware of camera phones causing a problem yet, but the potential is undeniably there.

"I'm sure if we know about it, someone's figured out how to do it," said Pat Lickiss, principal of Las Lomas High School in Walnut Creek, where "no cell phone" signs will soon be posted in locker rooms. "But as of this time, nothing of the cheating nature or in locker rooms has come to our attention."

Travis Larson, a spokesman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a Washington-based trade group, started getting calls about camera phones being used as cheating devices a few months ago.

"Anywhere the use of a camera is inappropriate, the use of a camera phone is inappropriate," Larson said. "In the end it's up to parents, teachers and administrators to decide what's best available or not available in the classroom."

Teachers at College Park High have been alarmed by reports of cell-phone cheating there, and the problem was discussed in a recent faculty meeting, Bunten, a math teacher, said. Students have told her "everybody does it." During finals, she told students she would assume they were cheating and they would fail the test if their hands were below the desk.

"The kids are much brighter than we are with computers and technology," she said. "There's no way we can keep up with them."

Ben Lue, a senior at Northgate High in Walnut Creek who owns a camera phone, said the resolution of the pictures is too grainy to make out the print on a test. Text messaging is a more likely cheating tool, he said.

But, he said, "nobody really wants to take the risk."

Like fashion, cell phones are hard to fight, he said.

Rena Frantz, a ninth grader at College Park High, said text messaging was a common cheating method among her friends in eighth grade, but she hasn't heard of it happening much in high school.

"I don't think it's worth the risk [of getting caught], but some people do," she said. "It's better to miss a couple of problems and get an 80 percent than to get a complete F."

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