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.
Such concerns were not unfounded. In May, improper text messaging figured into a cheating scandal on the Advanced Placement U.S. history test at vaunted Severna Park High School in Anne Arundel County.
Montgomery was among the last school systems in the area to ban cellphones in middle schools. Up to now, students could carry one only with a waiver from the administration.
Fairfax County schools dropped their cellphone ban in high schools just after the Sept. 11 attacks and extended the privilege to middle schools in 2003. School systems in Alexandria and in Howard and Loudoun counties, among others, allow any student to have a cellphone provided it is off and out of sight. Calvert County allows cellphones when parents register with schools. D.C. officials leave the decision to principals but are weighing a districtwide policy.
Elsewhere in the nation, large, urban school systems tend to have more restrictive rules on cellphones, and small, rural districts are more permissive, said Reggie Felton, director of federal relations at the National School Boards Association.
Cellphones are banned in New York City public schools. Detroit and Miami schools allow students to carry cellphones but not to use them. Chicago officials leave the decision to principals.
Geri Shapiro, a parent at Herbert Hoover Middle School in Rockville, said she purchased a cellphone for her son, who is in middle school, at the same time she bought phones for her two children in high school because it was cheaper to get a three-person plan. Most kids in her neighborhood, she said, acquire their own cellphones "as they hit that bar mitzvah age" -- or, 13 -- which she said is about the time parents begin leaving children unsupervised at after-school activities.
"It's indispensable for being able to get a message to your kid," she said.
Montgomery high school senior Ben Moskowitz doesn't remember anyone carrying a cellphone when he was in middle school. But this spring, when he visited middle schools while campaigning for a seat on the school board, "a vast number of students had cellphones with them -- probably a majority of them," Moskowitz said.
Some families had taken the trouble to sign waivers, but many more simply had their children hide the phones. Principals mostly looked the other way in what board member O'Neill termed a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.