Thursday, May 17, 2007

What To Do About Cell Phones in School

Our Town downtown
May 29, 2006

A friend old enough to have gone to scores of movies in the days before cell phones observed the other night that he didn’t remember himself or his wife or anyone else for that matter sprinting to the pay phones as soon as the theater let out. He did recall though going out after most of those movies for dinner or drinks with other couples, all with children at home in the care of sitters. Occasionally, in the restaurant or bar one of the mothers would look for a quarter in her purse and excuse herself to make a call to check on her kids. The other women would invariably mock-grimace when she left the table and would joke how maybe they were being bad mothers for not checking in on their kids. But they had told the sitter, hadn’t they, where they’d be going for dinner and had even looked up the number of the place and written it down right by the phone before sincerely saying, “We won’t be late.”

That is indeed how it was. Safety was assumed then. If no one was paged at the bar, there were no problems. The biggest issues of those nights centered around who had to see the sitter home and what should be said if it appeared that maybe the boyfriend had stopped over after the kids were asleep.

Now of course it’s a different world because of cell phones and our addiction to them. Cell phones sit in our pockets and our purses like a pack of cigarettes. Given a break in the action, we light up one call after another. Those same mothers now would be making calls and receiving calls until just before the movie, during dinner, in the cab. The baby sitter at home would be puffing away on the phone breathlessly even before the kids went down.

Mayor Bloomberg must be tired of seeing all that kind of smoke in the city schools and he wants to get rid of it like he got rid of cigarettes in the bars. Many people hated him for that tavern fiat, swore that the bar business would be decimated by it. But time proved them wrong, him right. Some addicts still moan of course but the ban has caused many smokers to rethink their dependence on butts and has prompted them to quit. Thank the mayor for that.

But he’s got as tough a crowd—maybe a tougher one-- now to convince that he’s looking out for their health. Mothers at work, or at home, fathers too, want to be in touch with their kids should a need arise. They say they want mostly to know that the kids are alright. They site 9/11. That’s their trump card. And it’s hard to argue against that. But Bloomberg knows the chaos of many of the schools he oversees and he’s willing to take drastic measures to impose some order on them. Phones in the schools must be a big problem: thefts of them, dropping them, phones ringing, text messaging; imagine the lunch room.

The mayor is right to want to rid the city schools of all phone mischief. Too much of the street has been brought into the schools for too long. He’s right to want to rid places of learning of all distractions. But maybe there’s a way to do it in this case that doesn’t give the phone-addicted parents withdrawal symptoms.

Here’s a simple solution. So simple it sounds, well, simple. We called a Catholic grade school in the city and asked the principal there if they have an issue with cell phones in their school and what they do about it. He answered that cell phones were a non-issue there. He said they let the students bring their cell phones into the school but they have to be kept in their book bags or back packs and can’t be seen or heard. If they are seen or heard, the kid gets after-school detention. The kids don’t want to stay after school, so they keep their cell phones off and out of sight. No calls in school, no text messaging. The parents know these are the rules and support the school in its enforcement policy. The principal said he can’t imagine why the public schools are having such a time with cell phones.

Neither can we. Maybe the enforcement policy in the public schools should mirror the one in the Catholic school we called. Is that too simple?

-- Bill Gunlocke

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