Pittsburgh Public School students equipped with chirping Nokias,Ericssons and Motorolas could start getting connected after class if a call from Superintendent John W. Thompson relaxes the district's ban on cellular phones.
If successful,the city's secondary schools will join other districts nationwide that have made cell phone use a safety issue for students in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Stories of victims using mobile phones to summon help or to contact family members appeared prominently in news reports after the attacks.
Thompson said he has talked about lifting the ban for months,but first proposed the idea during a committee meeting with school officials in early January.
“I said,‘let's make sure we have enough avenues for parents,kids and the school to get in touch with whoever and whenever.'”
The district's school board discussed changing the policy at its Jan. 9 meeting,but asked that the issue undergo further review.
Ironically,the formal policy outlawing cell phones in Pittsburgh's school system gained final approval days before Sept. 11,said Pat Crawford,district spokeswoman.
Administrators everywhere have wrestled with the issue since the Columbine school shootings in Littleton,Colo.,and elsewhere.
In Maryland,Montgomery County's Board of Education voted unanimously in October to allow high schools students to have cell phones in school as long as the devices remained off and in lockers during the day.
More recently,the Dallas Independent School District this month heard from parents pushing to change the district's restrictions on cell phones. Trustees there could make a recommendation on the issue this month.
Regardless of location,the decision hinges on how to keep classroom disruptions and drug problems in check while allowing students an emergency means of communication,Crawford explained.
Pittsburgh Public Schools serve approximately 38,000 students in 91 area schools.
Pittsburgh,along with many districts in Allegheny and Butler counties,adopted a ban on pagers to combat or prevent drug problems in the late 1980s. Since then,the schools have gradually expanded their policies to include cell phones,text transmitters and even laser pointers.
Kathryn Gillespie,17,a senior at Peabody High School in the Pittsburgh Public School District,is in favor of changing the ban on cell phones. She said students dealing in drugs likely would continue their activities with or without cell phones in school.
Her classmate,Delshawn Anderson,18,agrees and adds that the opportunity to use a cell phone in school at the end of the day would help him tell his family of any changes in his schedule.
“I have dependents like my brother and my grandmother who need to know what's going on,” he said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education does not have a statewide policy advising districts about cell phones in school.
Few national education groups have considered the issue either – leaving parents and local communities to decide district rules,said Michael Carr,spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Sharon Fissel is the director of policy services for the Pennsylvania School Board Association. She said the PSBA advises banning pagers,but not cell phones. Her organization's stand has held despite parent group efforts to change school districts' policies after the Columbine school shootings in Littleton,Colo.,and the terrorist attacks.
“I think what we told districts is not to be reactive to a situation,and that when you adopt a policy,you should look at the long-term implications,” she said.
Outside Pittsburgh,suburban districts have dealt with cell phones and students in a variety of ways.
Butler Area High School follows a guideline similar to Pittsburgh's city school district by allowing only students with a medical or work-related waiver to have cell phones,said Michael Strutt,an assistant superintendent at Butler.
“The phones tend to be a distraction,and when they first came out there was a concern about their use for illicit purposes,” he said.
North Allegheny has banned pagers and cell phones also.
But nearby Seneca Valley School District treats the problem more subtly. The district allows cell phones in its secondary schools,but the devices must be off and in students' lockers while classes are in session,said Linda Andreassi,spokeswoman.
When a student is caught with a cell phone in class,disciplinary action is taken and an administrator confiscates the phone,she said. The district does not permit pagers on campus.
“Everything that's happened in the past four or five months has changed people's thinking about communications,” Andreassi said.
Safety experts bring another twist to the debate.
Fred Zagurski works as a technical security consultant for school districts trying to upgrade surveillance equipment and other safety measures on the West Coast. As a member of the American Society of Industrial Security's education security council,Zagurski said students offer an invaluable “on-the-scene” contact for emergency personnel.
“Students would be able to describe exactly what's happening to emergency officials,which is much better than someone pushing a panic button that can indicate any kind of emergency (to authorities).”
For Pittsburgh schools,a decision including how the policy will change is still in the preliminary stages,Thompson said. He offered no deadline for a final review of his proposal.
“We'll be discussing it with the principals,” he said. “I just want to make sure my students are safe.”