Backstory: 'Ringing' in the School Year ; New York City Fights over Whether to Allow Cellphones in Schools, Echoing a Debate Nationwide

Article excerpt

The cellphone has become the ultimate emblem of today's teenager - as much an appendage as an electronic device. Just ask Nathan Bixler, a 16-year-old senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York. Nathan frequently babysits his siblings and needs to know - often during the school day - whether he'll be on duty.

That's fine with Eleanor Roth, a substitute teacher in New York, provided those arrangements aren't made while she's teaching English. She's heard it all in class: loud rings, boisterous conversations, the ubiquitous giggles. On a recent Friday, five students were laughing hysterically in the back of the room. She marched toward them. "They were crowded around a cellphone displaying a video," she says.

Nathan and Ms. Roth represent the electron and proton of New York's Great Cellphone Debate. When New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) began enforcing an 18-year-old ban on communications devices in public schools this spring, it touched off a small civil war.

Within a month, the school system became the unproud owner of more than 3,000 phones - all confiscated from students who walked through metal detectors placed randomly at schools across the city.

Outraged parents marched on City Hall. Kids acted as if they had been deprived of a constitutional right, or, worse, told to clean up their rooms. Most teachers, though believing schools should set such policies on their own, at least empathized with the rationale for the mayor's move: Finally, someone was talking about one of their chief complaints in the classroom.

Since then, the furor has subsided in the hallways, but the issue has hardly disappeared. A group of parents filed a lawsuit against the mayor, school chancellor, and the New York City Department of Education seeking to overturn the ban. Supporters of chatter-free schools seem unlikely to back off. "There is no constitutional right to disrupt a student's education," says Keith Kalb, an Education Department aide.

At City Hall, several council members are pushing for a legislative solution. If these efforts fail, the issue may end up in Albany. "I think the mayor just made a snap decision...," says State Sen. Tom Duane (D), a critic of the ban.

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New York's tempest in a dial tone is hardly unique. Schools at all levels are struggling to cope with the technology's encroachment in the classroom. On the one hand, most high-tech accouterments - from the laptop to the Internet - are opening up unprecedented opportunities for learning. But they can also be distracting or worse, if cheating, crime, or indelicate videos are involved. Laptops are increasingly banned from university classrooms by professors who want to stop students from incessant surfing.

Cellphones, to be sure, are different. Even though they're becoming computers in a palm, they're still mainly used for communication. Along with their proliferation - Americans spent 1.7 trillion minutes on cellphones last year - it has become increasingly difficult for families, particularly kids, to part with them. Ever.

Part of the concern in New York is safety. Alex Newman recalls how his older sister went to high school a few blocks from the World Trade Center on 9/11. "That's when they [my parents] got her a cellphone," he says. Mindy Gerbush, the parent of a recent high school graduate, agrees. "I lived through 9/11 with my son," she says. …