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
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
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.
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
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