What's That Beeping in Student Backpacks? ; California Is Reversing Its School Ban on Cellphones. Will Other States Follow Suit as Teen Usage Escalates?

By Armstrong, Elizabeth | The Christian Science Monitor, September 6, 2002 | Go to article overview
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What's That Beeping in Student Backpacks? ; California Is Reversing Its School Ban on Cellphones. Will Other States Follow Suit as Teen Usage Escalates?


Armstrong, Elizabeth, The Christian Science Monitor


It is a typical back-to-school shopping day at the mall. Teens have descended on the popular American clothing boutiques, and are dragging unwieldy shopping bags - and reluctant parents - through the checkout lines.

What makes this scene different from a mere two years ago is those little gadgets sticking out of back jean pockets or the sides of backpacks: cellphones.

Here, five friends are meeting outside American Eagle for lunch - the time and place arranged not by a morning consensus, but in networked phone calls made just minutes ago. With the power of e- mail, instant messaging, and voicemail at their fingertips, these 15- year-olds are connected.

By February 2002, over half of 12- to 17-year-olds were toting cellphones, according to a survey by Frank Magid & Associates and UPOC, a developer of mobile community and marketing technologies. The increasing ubiquity of cellphones - while not controversial at the mall - is stirring debate as the devices enter another teen haunt: the classroom.

Last week, the nation's largest state took an important stand on the issue. California governor Gray Davis reversed a 14-year ban on cellphones in public schools, signaling a growing movement toward strict parameters for - but not outright prohibitions of - cellphone use in schools. The decision reaffirms how integral wireless communication has become for today's youth.

From accessory to 'necessity'

"I've had a cellphone since I was in sixth grade," says Caitlin Stewart, a freshman at Rancho Cotate High School in Santa Rosa, as she flips through a rack of shirts at American Eagle.

Over at the pants section, a father and daughter are talking animatedly - but not with each other. He's doing business; she's pulled out a Nokia to complain to a friend.

"Whether they're legal or not, we're gonna carry them around," Caitlin chimes in on her way to the dressing room. "Life changes. You have to adapt."

Cellphone companies estimate that more high school students have access to cellphones than don't. CNET, a technology information and services provider, predicts that by 2004, three-quarters of teens will use a cellphone daily - whether or not they own one. And often there's a whole array of other gadgets floating around in those backpacks: PDAs, pagers, MP3 players, Game Boys.

Gov. Davis's reversal of the phone ban gives individual schools the power to determine whether cellphones are appropriate. Proponents of phones in schools - many of whom cite the Columbine incident as evidence of the need for instant communication - applaud the decision.

Meanwhile, similar debates are being hammered out in state capitals across the country. Maryland, Arkansas, and Virginia have also overturned cellphone bans. Illinois and Indiana are, for now at least, more hesitant. Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have banned cellphones in schools under laws that limit the use of electronic communication devices, generally as a way of thwarting drug dealing, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Shifting opinions - and social mores

The classroom once stood as a symbol of protection from social machinations and the whims of fashion.

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