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.
"There was a view that only drug dealers and gang members had cellphones," said Montgomery school board member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). A student caught with a cellphone in the 1990s risked expulsion. But a state ban on carrying pagers or cellphones at school was repealed in 2001.
Montgomery's rules, echoing the practice in other school systems, call for cellphones to be stowed in pockets or backpacks. Such policies were written when cellphones were mostly used for placing calls, an activity clearly at odds with instruction.
These days, students are more interested in texting, which generally distracts only the texter and recipient.
In D.C. public schools, the Duke Ellington School of the Arts provides an exception to the cellphone-usage ban, allowing cellphones to be used at lunch but not in class.
"Most students follow the rule well," said Rory Pullens, chief executive of Duke Ellington. "Our students have a long school day, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with rehearsals and performances that often run until 10 p.m., so they must be able to communicate with parents."
But Margaret Gushue, 17, a junior at the school, said she has classmates "who text throughout class, with their cellphones in full view." The scofflaws, she said, are "usually the students who would otherwise be talking to the person next to them the whole time."
Amy Hemmati, 18, a senior at Walter Johnson, said texters "seem to be following their own moral code: They'll text during lectures but not during labs or tests, or they'll text in classes that they don't think are important."
Schools that allow students to leave at lunch have no say in cellphone use off campus.
Some parents said they are content with the on-campus prohibition, as long as they can reconnect with their children at the end of the day.
"If it's a real emergency, I'll call the school and they'll get him, right?" said Marcio Duffles, father of a senior at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in the District.
But he sometimes forgets the rules. "I know I've inadvertently called my son during [my] lunchtime," Duffles said, "and he'd be in class, and he'd quickly pick up and say, 'I'm in class.' "
Maureen Thompson has received text messages from her son, a freshman at Watkins Mill, at lunchtime, when it is prohibited. She approves of opening lunchtime to cellphones, but not class time: "Students are obsessed with texting and would do so 24-7 if permitted."
Malik reasons that cellphones at lunch are a harmless distraction. "If students know that there is a designated time to use cellphones," she wrote in her resolution, "students may be less tempted to use them during class hours." The measure has garnered mixed reviews from educators; board members might choose to narrow the resolution into a small pilot program.
Some teachers fear that once students are allowed to turn their phones on, they will never turn them off.
At Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, students have recently been permitted to listen to portable music devices at lunch. But according to social studies teacher Marc Grossman, easing iPod limits has led to "increased confrontations between teachers and students" at other times. Malik's proposal, he wrote the school board, "will simply embolden students who push the envelope."