Prince George's bans student cellphone use during school day

By Michael Birnbaum
Saturday, June 19, 2010

That silent, studious classroom? Looks can deceive, say Prince George's County educators, who have fired the latest volley in a technological arms race that pits student against teacher.

There is an epidemic of under-the-desk text messages during class, a virtual economy of exam pictures posted to Facebook, a trade in school fight videos on YouTube, they say. To combat it, the county school board voted Thursday to ban cellphones and other electronics during the school day, even as many school systems across the country are loosening their rules.

Nor will students be allowed to post photos and videos shot on school property on the Web, which would include such sites as Facebook and YouTube.

The ban is the strongest among school systems in the Washington area.

"We know for a fact that the use of cellphones on school property around this country has led to a number of problems around safety," said Board of Education Chairman Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large), citing issues of explicit text messages and videos of fights posted online -- one case of which happened just last week at Bowie High School.

"It's a tough policy," Jacobs said. She added that the board worked with its attorney to be as strict as legally possible.

School systems across the country have had to balance the demands of students and parents, many of whom like being able to stay in contact during the day, with concerns from teachers, who say cellphones' expanding capabilities go hand-in-hand with expanded opportunities for distraction and trouble.

Montgomery County last year decided to allow students at many high schools to use cellphones during lunch. New York, by contrast, bars students from even having the devices at school, and it prevailed in a lawsuit by parents challenging the rule.

Prince George's has restricted cellphone use in the past, but the consequences for violations were unclear and unevenly applied, officials said.

Under the new policy, students may carry cellphones during the day, but the phones must be turned off and put away, not simply silenced. On rare occasions, officials said, students may get permission from teachers to use the phones. During after-school activities, students will need the permission of a teacher or coach to use cellphones. And photos and videos taken on school property, whether with a cellphone or a camera, may not be shared electronically, ruling out sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.

The penalties

The policy would not ban parents from posting their students' photographs, Jacobs said.

"The intent is not to prohibit fun activities where you can enjoy families and enjoy children in their sports events," Jacobs said. "The intent is to know what's happening and to know what's going on." For example, she said, "at an awards ceremony, I envision that an administrator would give approval to take pictures, and here's an appropriate time to come up front and take pictures."

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