School cell phone ban raises ire of parents near the W.T.C.

By Alex Schmidt

Parents of New York City children were never much concerned with the school ban on mobile devices that was put in place in 1987, long before cell phones were commonly used; it was never enforced — that is, ostensibly, until now.

The Department of Education has plans to deploy mobile metal scanning units similar to those used in airports in schools around the city, under a policy that took effect April 26. Children are required to walk through the units to enter school where the units visit. Along with weapons like firearms, knives and box cutters, the scans will enable N.Y.P.D. to crack down on prohibited mobile items like cell phones, iPods and Blackberries.

“Most parents whose kids have cell phones view it fundamentally as a safety device and the idea that you’re going to ban them to improve safety is really counterproductive,” said Battery Park City resident Jeff Galloway, whose children, 14 and 12, attend Bronx Science and Lab respectively. “My daughter goes all the way up to the Bronx. She’s generally home most days after dark and she’s only 14… I just can’t imagine sending my children out into the city on their own without a cell phone.”

Max McCalman, P.T.A. co-chairperson at I.S. 89 in Battery Park City said that the issue is particularly touchy for Downtown parents because of their proximity to the World Trade Center. “[The cell phone] was our link to our children,” he said. “Especially for those… that lived down there on 9/11, they still have a little bit of separation anxiety from their family.”

The mayor and education officials have made the point that there are other ways to communicate with children during the day, but Galloway doesn’t buy it. He believes there are less payphones now because everyone is expected to have a cell phone. “If you take the cell phones away from a million schoolchildren,” he says, “then that very vulnerable group does not have a phone.”

Initially, the ban on mobile units was created as a safety measure when gang members and drug dealers used pagers for their activities. Today, with many students owning such devices, the Department of Education says that cell phones are both a safety concern as well as a distraction in the classroom. Keith Kalb, a D.O.E. spokesperson, painted this scenario: “If I get into a fight with somebody and I go into the bathroom and call all my friends from local schools to jump somebody else, that is a safety issue.”

At a press conference on Tuesday, Bloomberg defended the cell phone ban, saying, “I don’t think that any responsible person can make the case that iPods and Blackberries and cell phones and other electronic devices should be in the classroom when our teachers are working as hard as they possibly can to teach our children what they’re supposed to know. And the diversion of kids messaging, talking on the phones, watching television while they’re in classrooms just is not something that’s appropriate for the classroom. Period. End of story.”

Galloway feels that such a justification is unrealistic. “This kind of response, to me, shows complete divorce from the reality of the classroom… If that kind of behavior were actually going on the teacher should be removed for complete inability to control the classroom.” On the point of cell phones as a safety impediment, Galloway sees the justification as outdated, “The idea that bullies use them to beat up weak kids… for as long as anyone can remember there have been bullies in schools and they use what they use.”

The initiative has placed school administrators in an awkward position. McCalman said “Overwhelmingly I’ve heard the parents’ dissatisfaction, so the administration is caught between policy they are mandated to follow, and parents crying foul. They’re stuck in the middle.” McCalman says that from the few conversations he’s had with administration and faculty, however, “they’ve said the rules are the rules,” and that the cell phone ban will be enforced should the mobile units appear at the school.

In fact, school administrators may have little say as to whether or not they choose to enforce the cell phone ban, as the mobile units will be deployed and operated by N.Y.P.D. An NYPD spokesperson, who asked not to be named, stated that regardless of the D.O.E.’s rationale, “NYPD enforces all rules in schools just as they enforce all laws on the street.”

But some schools may try to circumvent the confiscations. Galloway said that Lab seems to be adopting a “common fence approach.” Should the mobile units show up at Lab, Galloway has heard, administrators will ask kids to put their cell phones in a box and give them back after school, before the children have to walk through the metal detectors. Sheila Breslaw, co-director of Lab School, did not return a call for comment.

At issue as well is the effectiveness of the mobile units as safety devices in and of themselves. McCalman said that the measure has gone some way toward calming I.S. 89 parents who became worried after a child shot a B.B. gun in school on March 10, but Galloway disagrees. Since the random searches will be clearly announced with signage at schools, said Galloway, “The metal detectors [are] clearly just for show… the kids that have weapons will just turn around and go home if there are signs posted clearly. They just won’t go through that day and they know they can come back the next day with their weapons because the metal detectors won’t be there.”

Another parent and Downtown resident, Mariama James, whose children, ages 4, 10 and 13, attend three different schools throughout New York City, feels that the metal detectors will not increase a feeling of safety for children. “Just a random search of children bothers me,” she said. “You can’t speak to a child about something unlawful without their parent or guardian. So why is this okay?” Galloway agrees: “This is teaching them to be afraid, to be afraid of authority of any time, that they can be searched…[it] is not good public policy or good public citizenship.”

James and other parents have currently signed onto a petition for an emergency moratorium on cell phone confiscation in schools, but no legal action appears to be pending as of yet.

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