Strict cellphone ban expected in Prince George's schools

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010; 5:42 PM

First it was a quick phone call in a bathroom. Then it was texting underneath the desk. Now it's video of fights and confrontations in hallways.

Prince George's County educators have watched as advancing technology has expanded the ways in which cellphones can distract and get students in trouble. So, the school board is poised to adopt the strictest cellphone ban in the region.

Under the proposal, students would be required to leave their phones turned off and in their lockers, from the first bell of the morning to the final bell of the school day. Students would be able to use their phones only with the principal's permission, or if a teacher wanted them to use it for some educational purpose.

The board was scheduled to vote on the proposal Thursday, but tabled action to incorporate suggestions from the teachers' union and refine other details of the policy.

The ban is the latest chapter in a national struggle over the spread of iPhones, BlackBerrys and other smartphones. Schools must balance demands from parents, many of whom appreciate being able to contact their children during the day, with demands from teachers, who say that even an otherwise quiet classroom can be distracted by silent electronic exchanges underneath the desk.

"When kids are in school, they need to be focused on academics," said Prince George's Board of Education member Donna Hathaway Beck (At Large), who wrote the policy with the backing of the rest of the board. "I kept hearing from teachers about what kids were doing with their cellphones," she said -- texting each other test answers, planning fights, "sexting" each other from the bathroom stalls -- and she thought a stronger, uniform policy was needed.

Evolving technology, and the changing ways students use it, has resulted in a shifting policies nationwide: Montgomery County loosened restrictions on cellphones this school year; New York City, by contrast, won a lawsuit brought by parents who disliked its ban against students possessing cellphones in school.

Most school systems in the Washington region have flexible policies, allowing students to carry powered-down cellphones in their pockets during the school day and turning a blind eye to lunchtime calls; most confiscate phones used inappropriately during class.

Prince George's County has had restrictions on cellphones, but the consequences were unclear and applied unevenly from school to school, board members said. Under the new policy, the first time a student is caught with a cellphone, it will be confiscated and returned at the end of the school day. The second time, a parent will have to pick it up. After a third offense, the student would be prohibited from bringing a cellphone to school at all.

Educators acknowledge that the devices have become thoroughly enmeshed in their students' lives. Still, they say, they need to create an atmosphere where students can concentrate on their lessons.

"We definitely acknowledge that it's become a part of their normal routine," said Rudolph Saunders, principal of Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro. He said his students sometimes text each other if they know a fight will happen after school. Students have also recorded fights with their phones' cameras.

"If I confiscated one every time I saw one, I'd have a boxful of phones," Saunders said. "I'd say teachers have to at least one time a day tell someone to put their phone away."

Next up for cellphone restrictions? Teachers, Beck said. One time, she said, "I walked into a classroom, and the teacher wouldn't get off her phone."

But that will have to be part of contract negotiations.

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