School bells will toll a farewell to the cell

August 22, 2005|By Liz F. Kay and Gina Davis | Liz F. Kay and Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Katrina Mallett knows that summer's end means less access to her cell phone.

While at her job at a shoe store, she was able to set her phone to "silent" or "vibrate." But once the 17-year-old returns for her senior year at Glen Burnie High School, school rules require her to turn it off and tuck it away.

With the inaudible setting, "at least you can know if somebody calls you if it's something important," Mallett said. "That would be fair."

Years after cell phones began appearing in schools - and interrupting classes - Baltimore-area school systems are still grappling with how to regulate them.

After months of debate, the Carroll County school board voted recently to allow students to make and receive calls on school buses. Montgomery County has permitted use of cell phones on school buses since 2001.

But other area school systems aren't rushing to follow suit, and many officials remain concerned about students sneaking in calls or text messages, or using them to cheat.

Anne Arundel County recently added cell phone use as an activity prohibited in its student code of conduct. And though Carroll has eased the rules on school buses, the county stiffened the penalties for violators on campus, ranging from confiscation to suspension.

With research showing that nearly half of teenagers now have a cell phone, school officials say they are trying to limit distractions and potential abuse while meeting the growing desires of parents and their children to stay in touch.

"Just walk the halls," said Kathy Lane, Anne Arundel County's director of alternative education. "What teenager doesn't have a cell phone?"

Many school districts around Maryland and the nation allow mobile phones on campus but require phones to be switched off and kept out of sight.

In Baltimore City as well Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Howard and Prince George's counties, students' phones must be stowed in backpacks, lockers and cars at all times. This includes lunch breaks, while riding the school bus and during after-school activities.

"Our policy's pretty simple: It's got to be inactive while you have it," said Baltimore County schools spokesman Charles A. Herndon.

Some districts, such as Montgomery and Harford, allow only high school students to carry cell phones. Montgomery County allows middle-schoolers to carry phones with a waiver from their principal.

Cell phones were not always allowed at schools. Many states, including Maryland, passed laws in the 1980s banning them and pagers on campuses after they were connected to illegal drug sales, said Lisa Soronen, a staff attorney for the National School Boards Association.

Attitudes changed after the fatal shooting of 12 students and a teacher at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, which demonstrated for many parents the value of a direct link to their children.

Maryland repealed its ban in October 2001, letting local school boards set their own policies. Thirteen other states have similar rules, according to the Education Commission of the States.

"In my opinion, the cell phone is no longer just for entertainment or convenience. It has become a security and safety issue," said Carroll County school board member Cynthia L. Foley.

The Wireless Association, a trade group representing carriers and manufacturers, believes that schools and parents should decide whether cell phones should be permitted, said group spokeswoman Erin McGee. However, she said, "the association certainly hopes that in determining that policy, schools do consider the safety and security that wireless phones can provide."

Part of the evolution stems from cell phones' popularity. About 45 percent of teenagers now have one, according to a recent report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Mobile phones have become so ubiquitous that pay phones have been removed from some schools in Harford County, said spokesman Donald R. Morrison.

Teachers say cell phones are sometimes a distraction but that enforcing the rules can take a lot of time and effort.

Valerie Pringle, an English teacher at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena, said offending callers are often parents with nonemergency concerns who feel "the right to contact their child supercedes the right to teach." But confiscating them creates a different problem of carrying someone else's valuable property, school officials said.

Carroll's board members had tried since May to reach a compromise that would allow students to use their cell phones on school buses but that also would crack down on violations in school buildings.

The new policy establishes uniform guidelines countywide with escalating penalties that begin with confiscation of the phone and culminate in suspension for the fourth and subsequent violations.

Thomas G. Hiltz, vice president of Carroll's school board, voted against the new policy.

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