Schools Ease Off Cellphone Restraints

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

The clandestine cellphone, tucked into a front pocket or buried deep within a backpack, is an increasingly common accessory among middle school students in Montgomery County.

With the start of a new school year today, those students will be allowed to carry -- but not use -- their cellphones at school without violating the code of conduct, as another Washington area school system bows to the will of a wireless community.

School boards everywhere are revisiting decade-old bans against portable communication devices in the classroom. Enacted with dire visions of drug dealers plying their trade, the rules have instead become an impediment to lacrosse moms trying to negotiate pickup times. Parents are also vexed by the notion that their children might not be allowed to call home during an emergency, the very scenario for which many such phones are purchased.

"You know, cellphones are ubiquitous these days," said Patricia O'Neill, a Montgomery school board member who has championed cellphone rights. "Many elementary students have cellphones. They're marketed for safety and security purposes."

As recently as 2000, the notion that adolescents should have cellphones was laughed out of the Maryland legislature. The impression in Annapolis, O'Neill recalled, was that "only gang members and rich Montgomery County students have cellphones."

But the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, with its stories of frightened students calling their parents to say they were alive, had already proved the technology's worth. And the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks unleashed a torrent of demands from parents to allow them unmitigated contact with their children in school.

In the years since, most of the region's school systems have revoked cellphone bans and adopted rules akin to those at an orchestral performance or on an airplane: Students may carry a cellphone, but it must be turned off and stowed away until the end of school.

"It's what everybody wanted," said Michael Hagan, 14, a rising ninth-grader at Damascus High School who served last year as president of the middle school student government in Montgomery.

Montgomery lawmakers and school board members led a campaign that, in 2001, overturned a 12-year-old Maryland law that banned pagers and cellphones in schools. But in subsequent years, the privilege to carry cellphones was extended only to high school students.

Students themselves campaigned to extend cellphone privileges to middle schools, where the phones have become pervasive over the past five years. The Montgomery school board this summer voted to allow cellphones in middle schools after a year-long field test at four schools allayed principals' fears about what they called "maturity issues" in the use of the phones by younger students.

"We were enforcing a well-intentioned policy that was out of step with modern realities," said Joseph Sacco, principal of Lakelands Park Middle School in Gaithersburg, one of the four test sites. He estimates that a quarter of sixth-graders and half of eighth-graders at his school carry cellphones.

There were instances of cellphones going off in class, Sacco said. But the most feared misuses, such as snapping pictures in locker rooms or text-messaging test answers, did not occur.

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