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Cell phones might not have a place in schools

May 30, 2009

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With age comes wisdom. Usually. But by the time they're 14, most kids have already forgotten more about technology than most of us who are over 40 will ever know.

It would be faster for me to write a letter on a typewriter, find an envelope and stamp and drive it to the post office than it would be to type out a text message on those awkward little keyboards, where "dear elizabeth" usually comes out looking like "beef stroganoff."

That in part is why it's difficult for schools to deal with cell phones. Students think up creative things to do with them faster than rules against the practices can be passed by the board.

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So if a school frowns on a cyber use, it either passes a new policy and institutes it retroactively, or tries to lump the infraction under a catch-all, such as "cyber bullying."

Such was the case this month in Inwood, W.Va., when a middle-school honor student was briefly suspended for recording a playground scuffle on her phone and posting it on YouTube.

The girl's father said the punishment was unjust. He's right.

The principal said something needed to be done. He's right, too.

The punishment was handed down under the county's cyber bullying policy, which prohibits students, or tries to, from using technology to "demean, intimidate or humiliate" other students.

Did the video do that? I don't know. I do know that it's asking a lot of a 13-year-old to fully contemplate the true meaning of "demean" before uploading.

At that age, kids require something that's pretty black and white: Thou shalt not post thy neighbor's fights to YouTube. Of course if schools draw rules that narrowly, students will always find a side-stepping alternative that's just outside the specific letter of the law.

That leaves schools in a constant game of catch-up, reactively passing policy to cover new and previously unlegislated transgressions.

Of course such a nettlesome debate avoids the question we've all thought, but haven't much asked: Why should students be permitted to have cell phones in school in the first place?

In describing a problematic situation in the early 1900s, Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland wrote that "a nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place - like a pig in a parlor instead of a barnyard." The circumstance is no indictment against the character of the pig, it's just that there is a place for everything, and everything in its place.

Cell phones can certainly be a convenience on campus. When volleyball practice is over, you can ring up mom and tell her to pick you up. In extreme cases they could even be a safety measure, such as quick communication in the event of a fire.

But there's growing evidence that whatever their occasional benefits, cell phones are coming between students and their education - which obviously is the primary mission of school systems. In the fourth quarter of 2008, teenagers sent an average of 2,272 text messages a month, which was twice as many as in the previous year.

In a New York Times report, experts questioned students' abilities to concentrate and fully develop their thoughts when interrupted by a constant barrage of connectivity.

Students are not supposed to have their cell phones out in class. Not supposed to. But even so, when they sense the vibration that signals an incoming message, there is bound to be a disconnect with the task at hand. Who is that? What does he want? Am I missing something?

That's not the best way to learn math.

This is not necessarily a debate about technology, it's a debate about distractions, which students should be relatively free of. Nor is it a debate about old versus young. Even we old fogeys were not allowed to bring those little cassette players into classrooms. In grade school, as I recall, we weren't allowed to haul out our toy soldiers and line them up on our desks.

And in the final analysis, that's what cell phones are - a toy. They have some practical applications to be sure - much as a light saber can be used to stake a tomato - but as primarily used by students, they are toys.

Perhaps there are good reasons to allow students to have these toys in schools that are more important than learning. Let's hear them. But this is an issue that boards of education need to consider. If cell phones are permitted on campuses, it is going to be very hard for schools to tell kids not to use them.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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