Cell phones have become a staple of modern living. Practically an extension of their hands, young people use cell phones for everything from online research to arranging a ride home with mom or dad.
But New York's recently reinforced ban of electronic devices in schools has parents, students and some city council members complaining as school administrators put cell phones on hold.
The ban dates back to 1988, but it's only been loosely enforced. Recent measures to reduce crime in schools, however, brought metal scanners and random checks to many schools, which has prompted the confiscation of more than 3,000 cell phones and various other electronic devices.
And it won't stop there, according to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Backed by many city educators, he has declared a firm stance against the presence of cell phones in schools.
"The reality is that if cell phones are allowed in our schools, they will be used, and they will be used inappropriately," Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott said at a recent city council hearing.
Educators have long denounced the presence of cell phones in school — and it's not hard to see why. Equipped with the Internet, games, text messaging and many other functions, cell phones are an easy way to tune in to entertainment and tune out learning.
Text messaging and camera phones offer new ways for young people to cheat, the ban's advocates say. Officials also point to students taking illicit photos in locker rooms or bathrooms and leaving their phones' disruptive ringers on during class.
In addition, supporters say having the expensive devices on campus can incite violence and crime. Cell phones, iPods and other prohibited electronic devices are frequently stolen from students, according to Keith Kalb, a spokesman for the New York Department of Education. Kalb also noted that the ban would hinder communication between gang members.
Critics, however, argue that kids with violent tendencies will steal or threaten students regardless.
Despite the debate surrounding the ban, it's not a question of whether cell phones should be allowed in the classroom. Parents and students — albeit reluctantly — generally agree that the devices are disruptive when used during class. Opponents take issue with the fact that the ban forbids cell phones from being on campus at all — even if they're turned off in backpacks or lockers.
Many cities have taken similar steps to limit cell phone use at school, with one major exception: Students are allowed to have cell phones on school grounds but are not permitted to have them out during school hours. Most critics of the ban support this approach, citing Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago as models.
New York officials question the efficacy of this standard, however. "It's unrealistic for people to think that kids are not going to use cell phones during the day," Kalb said.
With kids and parents constantly on the move, many guardians also view cell phones as a way of keeping tabs on their kids throughout the day.
"If we make plans with our friends at school, we need to call our parents and tell them that we're going out with our friends or they might worry or call the police," said Suzanne Bisht, a seventh-grader at Russell Sage Junior High in New York.
But there once was a time when cell phones didn't exist and society was just fine, supporters of the ban reason.
"When I grew up, we used quarters and that's how we got in touch with our parents, if in fact we needed to get in touch with our parents," Kalb countered.
Bisht and her peers, however, feel that since times have changed and cell phones have become the dominant means of communication, officials need to get on board with modern technology. "This is not 1980 or 1970," she said. "It's 2006. We have our own way to do stuff."
In fact, Bisht believes so strongly that cell phones should be allowed on school grounds that she has decided to take action. Students at her school who had cell phones confiscated also had to pay a $100 fine, Bisht said. Her classmates' experience, coupled with the rising crackdown on cell phones in school, prompted her to start a petition. Bisht has 150 signatures and plans on submitting the petition to Mayor Bloomberg when she gets 200 to 300 signatures.
Despite protesters' efforts and a proposed bill by several city council members, the mayor's office most likely won't budge on the issue. Sticking to their guns, officials assure the community that they are acting in the students' best interests.
"We're sympathetic to their [parents'] concerns," Kalb said. "But the real problem is that if we allow kids to have cell phones, they will inevitably be used in the classroom and they will disrupt the learning process for 1.1 million kids, and we just can't have that."