Montgomery County Student Leader Proposes Allowing Cellphone Use at Lunchtime

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

Juan Hendrix, an earth science teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, knows that when it comes to cellphone use in schools, looks can deceive.

"A classroom can appear quiet and orderly, but it may be abuzz with chatter," Hendrix said.

Text messaging has spawned an era of uninterrupted contact among friends, especially young people. Students often tap out silent conversations beneath their desks, even though most Washington area public schools forbid them to use cellphones on campus during school hours.

To defuse the conflict, a Montgomery County student leader has proposed a compromise: Let students text while they eat.

A resolution before the county school board would allow high school students to use cellphones on campus at lunchtime. Quratul-Ann Malik, the board's elected student member and sponsor of the measure, is seeking to define an appropriate place for iPhones and BlackBerrys at school.

Malik, 18, a senior at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg, said she believes she speaks for the text-messaging set. A Facebook group to promote her cause attracted 1,200 members in three days.

"They got rid of pay phones a couple years ago in high schools," Malik said. "The reason they got rid of pay phones is because of cellphones. But students aren't allowed to use them."

She faces entrenched administrative opposition. Students in Montgomery, Fairfax, Prince George's, Loudoun, Prince William, Anne Arundel, Howard, Frederick, Arlington and Calvert counties and the District, among other places, are forbidden to use portable communication devices during school hours.

The rules were written when few students carried cellphones and "text" was not yet a verb. Today, they are difficult to enforce. The main problem is texting, which has supplanted talking and note-passing as the distraction of choice in many classrooms.

"Some teachers with good eyes can stop it, but for the most part it's ridiculously easy to text during class," said David Riva, 18, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

At Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, employees confiscate eight to 10 cellphones a week, said Jim Fernandez, the principal. Serious transgressions, such as using cellphones to cheat during tests or forwarding sexually explicit photos, have not been reported.

Education leaders responded to the first generation of bulky cellphones by banning them from schools, regarding the gadgets with the same suspicion as pagers.

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