Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006

‘Jam on it’ is Duane’s call on cell phone debate

By Anindita Dasgupta

“Can you hear me now?” is not a phrase that applies to the often shrill debate over cell phones in the city’s public schools. Parents, students, teachers, school administrators, the mayor and other elected officials have all weighed in loudly on the matter.

The issue over the city’s cell phone ban in public schools surfaced in the last few months, due to random checks that started on April 26 when the Department of Education began enforcing a 1987 law banning electronic devices from high schools. The initial search was meant to catch weapons brought into academic buildings, but D.O.E. confiscated more than 800 cell phones, setting off the fraught debate.

With the mayor refusing to back down from a policy of no cell phones in the schools and many parents and students saying it’s their right for students to have their phones in schools, the situation has reached a seemingly intractable standoff. There has been talk by civil rights lawyers of filing a lawsuit on behalf of students’ right to have their phones in school.

Offering perhaps a middle ground and a solution is a proposal by State Senator Tom Duane. In a recent letter to Mayor Bloomberg, Duane encouraged the exploration of cell phone-jamming technology.

“One sensible suggestion is that the Department of Education employ jamming technology to prevent the phones from functioning in schools,” Duane wrote, adding, “In comments to the Daily News, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein dismissed that idea as too expensive. This strikes me as a rush to judgment, much like the decision to confiscate students’ phones in the first place.”

Duane feels it’s important for students to be able to physically have their phones in school, even if they can’t use them there, because, as he stated in his letter, “We should understand the need for families to be able to communicate both during a disaster, and regularly when children are traveling to and from school.”

Laura Morrison, Duane’s chief of staff, said of her boss, “He feels very strongly that students should have access to them [cell phones] outside of school.”

However, an obvious question is if a phone is electronically jammed during the school day, how will families communicate with their children if a disaster strikes during school hours?

Morrison acknowledges that the issue is complex and needs to be worked out.

“We need to find a solution to this,” she said. “But the main point is that a knee-jerk reaction is not the way to go.”

Whether the jamming signal would just apply to the school building or extend beyond it — and if so, how far — is not known yet. These details still need to be ironed out.

While the verdict is still out on Duane’s proposal, the debate over cell phones in the school rages on. Parents, administrators and policy makers all agree cell phones should not be used in the classroom. All sides acknowledge that cell phones are a potential distraction to students during classes.

However, some parents and many students feel cell phones have become such a large part of everyday life that they cannot do without them. Sybil Graziano, mother of an eighth-grader at New Explorations into Science Technologies and Math, or NEST + M, on the Lower East Side, feels cell phones are essential today, especially for students commuting from all ends of the city. Parents worry about coordinating pickups and drop-offs without cell phones, Graziano said, feeling it’s impossible to get messages to their children through parent coordinators or school secretaries. In addition, there’s fear of not being able to contact students during an emergency. With Sept. 11 still fresh in parents’ minds, many are not willing to let their children leave the house without a cell phone.

Ann Defalco, a member of the Youth and Education Committee of Community Board 1, said, “As a parent and resident of Lower Manhattan the school cell phone ban is a direct violation, particularly for those who have been more contiguously affected by 9/11.”

When asked about parents’ anxieties, Alicia Maxey, a D.O.E. spokesperson, said, “We are sympathetic to the concerns of parents but our experience is that if cell phones are allowed in school…they will inevitably interrupt the school’s learning environment.”

Some advocates of the ban feel that in the case of an emergency during school hours, the best course of action may not be for students to contact parents via cell phones, since heavy cell-phone usage may lead to jamming of lines. Instead, they suggest using the landline phones that exist in many classrooms. Judy Khan, a parent at Shuang Wen Academy on the Lower East Side, said because she trusts the school so much, that in the case of an emergency, she feels the school would know how to handle the situation.

Some parents, though, are raising the issue of how a school would handle an internal crisis if there was a cell phone ban.

“They [D.O.E.] know that there is a lot of stuff going on our schools that they haven’t gotten a handle on it yet — they don’t want anything reported that they can’t handle,” said Betsy Combier, a parent advocate. “If the public is misinformed, they can keep control.”

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