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Learning.now is a weblog that explores how new technology and Internet culture affect how educators teach and children learn. It will offer a continuing look at how new technology such as wikis, blogs, vlogs, RSS, podcasts, social networking sites, and the always-on culture of the Internet are impacting teacher and students' lives both inside and out of the classroom.
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Judge Upholds NYC School Ban on Mobile Phones

In a blow to parents and school groups fighting the New York City Department of Education’s prohibition against mobile phones on campus, a judge has ruled that the board was within its rights to institute the ban.

This is a case I’ve been following since September 2005, when the education department issued an update to their disciplinary code stating, “Beepers and other communication devices are prohibited on school property, unless a parent obtains the prior approval from the principal/designee for medical reasons.” Schools began enforcing the ban in April of 2006, at which time some schools even started scanning students with mobile metal detectors, resulting in the confiscation of thousands of mobile devices.

Many parents and some education groups protested the rule. One group, the Association of New York City Education Councils, circulated a petition against the ban, stating that it “[i]nfringes on the rights of parents seeking to provide cellular phones as a tool of protection for their child(ren),” and “[i]ntervenes in the ability of parents to communicate with their children and vice versa.” Meanwhile, the local executive board of the United Federation of Teachers unanimously passed a resolution against the banning of mobile phones on campus, though it agreed with the premise their use on campus should be restricted.

It’s an emotional issue for people on both sides of the debate. Many educators and administrators support the ban because of concerns that mobile devices were interfering with the educational process, from simple interruptions to incidents of cheating and bullying. The department documented 2,168 incidents of mobile phones interfering with teaching in just the 2005-2006 school year alone. The parents groups, however, have been arguing that the all-out ban goes too far, making it impossible for them to reach their children in times of major emergencies. There have been attempts at reaching a compromise, like allowing students to rent phone lockers where their mobile devices must be secured during the day, but no plan has satisfied all the concerned parties.

It didn’t take long for a group of parents to sue the board of education. They cited a variety of claims, including the board had overreached its authority in instituting the ban, and that it was interfering with their constitutional right to communicate with their children. Their first case was dismissed by a lower court in June 2007, but they appealed the dismissal, bringing us to the appellate decision that was issue about two weeks ago.

The appellate judge, however, did not find any merit to the parents’ case. In her decision, Judge Angela Mazzarelli supported the position of the school chancellor:

The Chancellor’s determination that a mere ban on cell phone use would not be sufficiently effective was not irrational. It is now routine before theater, movie and other cultural presentations attended by adults, for patrons to be asked to turn off their cell phones. Even then there is no guarantee that the cell phone of an inattentive person will not ring at an inopportune time. While the vast majority of public school children are respectful and well-behaved, it was not unreasonable for the Chancellor to recognize that if adults cannot be fully trusted to practice proper cell phone etiquette, then neither can children.

Of course, the cell phone activity identified by the Department as threatening discipline in the schools goes far beyond the occasional errant ring. The very nature of cell phones, especially with regard to their text messaging capability, permits much of that activity to be performed surreptitiously, which the Chancellor rationally concluded presents significant challenges to enforcing a use ban. Certainly the Department has a rational interest in having its teachers and staff devote their time to educating students and not waging a “war” against cell phones.

Having said that, the judge added that the department’s ban should not be interpreted as absolute, noting certain circumstances where a student should indeed possess a mobile phone:

Questions of justiciability aside, we are not unsympathetic to the Parents’ wish to be secure in the knowledge that they can reach their children, or be reached by them, in the event of a private or public emergency. However, we note that Regulation A-412 expressly authorizes schools to permit a child to possess a cell phone if he or she has a medical reason. Thus, children who are legitimately predisposed to physical and/or psychological issues will be able to have a cell phone to reach their parents when not in school. We can think of no reason why the Department would not permit schools to entertain reasonable applications for exemptions to the policy which do not necessarily rely on medical issues but involve equally compelling situations. For example, one of the Parents asserted in an affidavit that her daughter was being “stalked” by another student. If a parent establishes that her child is in a similar situation, the school has the ability to extend permission to the child to carry a cell phone. We further recognize that not every situation in which parents would wish to contact or be reached by their children by cell phone can be foreseen.

From my perspective, I’ve always felt it was within the right of the education department to ban cell phones, so I’m not surprised that the parents’ appeal failed. Having said that, just because it’s within the rights of school officials to issue the ban doesn’t mean the issue is settled, as parents and other concerned citizens have raised valid points about the ban being too heavy-handed.

One thing I wish the judge had dealt with more directly is whether the exceptions she cited might also include educational exceptions - in other words, educators actively encouraging, if not requiring, their students to utilize mobile devices as part of an education exercise. As the ban extends to a wide range of mobile devices, it could be interpreted by some as preventing educators to participate in experiment mobile educational initiatives, or projects as simple as asking students to follow a number of overseas Twitter accounts to practice their foreign language skills. While I imagine that a major mobile initiative would require administrators’ blessings anyway and probably could be worked out, I’d guess that these smaller scale, under-the-radar mobile learning projects would face larger hurdles.

What do you think? Did the judge issue the right ruling? Do you support the current policy? If not, how would you alter it, and why? -andy

Filed under : Mobile Devices, Policy


I am conflicted on this issue. There is a part of me that applauds the decision. The amount of time spend taking phones and dealing with the discipline issues surrounding it is staggering. The cheating, bullying, and other inappropriate uses have not abated with teaching about the use. We even tried giving students more latitude hoping they would rise to the occasion but to no avail. I think if you polled the teachers in my high school 95 percent would vote to ban. Last time I checked, schools have phones and liberally use them. How did all students that went through a public school survive since the inception of the phone? I know that sounded like my mother but you all get the drift. On the other hand, as I become more skilled with a wide variety of tools, I can see the value of using with students. I give my cell number to students and have yet to have any abuse it. The ability to text for a quick answer has been invaluable. So my guess is that until we(as educators) come up with a way to reach kids about this issue. Most teachers are going to herald this decision as the right one.

My youngest just graduated from a (demographically advantaged) suburban high school and went to a strong university. Cell phones were permitted, but students were expected to not let them interfere in class. Similarly, at his university, phones and wireless laptops are used by all students without undue interference. There’s nothing intriniscally bad (or good) about the technology.

It seems that the issue is one of socialization and discipline and pedagogy - not merely technology. Instead of structuring the schools and classrooms so students are engaged and use such technology to do primary research and collaboration, they are confined to “training pens” and fattened for high-stakes testing that is irrelevant to the (good) jobs they could have.

Truly another widening of the digital divide!

I think the judge’s decision was very well thought out, well articulated and incredibly fair. There is no reason (beyond medical)that a child would need a cell phone in school. To the mother whose daughter is being stalked, I think she has bigger problems to worry about, and a cell phone isn’t the answer. Applications for learning, I’m going to go out on a limb here and venture a guess that any learning application with a cell phone can be modified and the lesson reworked in another format. What about the kids that don’t have cell phones to begin with? Cell phones are a convenience, not a necessity. We seem to have forgotten that somewhere along the line.

Bravo! Both common sense and the law rule!As a licensed attorney for 30 yr. and a high school teacher for the past seven, I see no legal or practical reason that cell phones shoentsuld be allowed during the school day. They are disruptive, promote cheating,and are unnecessary to insure that parents have a way to reach children. I have 3 children myself, including one still in high school, and have always worked outside the home. Every school has systems set up for parent-child emergency communications that do not involve the child having a cell phone with them.Th author’s comment about “using the technology” in the classroom is specious - other technology can do the same thing.

My feeling is that if parents feel that they need to be able to contact their kids at school, then let the student carry a cell phone restricted in such a way that the parents’ numbers are the only ones that can be dialed and the only ones from which calls can be received. They can purchase phones without cameras and phone plans without texting capability. This solves everyone’s problems.

YEAH! I love the overall message: if you’re goign to act like a six year old, we’re going to have treat you like one. I think school schools have tried the turn it off when you get to school approach and it hasn’t worked. Parents aren’t in the class to enforce their kids, there are plenty of computers and phones around a school (last time I checked each teacher had one), and most of these kids have cars or friends with cars…Can’t they leave it in the car? It’s fine and dandy in a school that has great kids (ie. private and charter schools that have more liberty anyways), let the principal make the call for an over all cell phone use.

Cell phones should be treated the same as any other distracting object. As a substitute teacher, I roam the room occasionally & confiscate any items being used that are not part of the lesson. The students only get their item(s) back after class is over, & with a warning that if it happens again, their parents will have to come visit with me before getting it back. That has always worked very well for me.

I agree with Doug. If the instruction in your classrooms was better, you wouldn’t have to worry about what the kids were doing.


I think that they made a good decision in banning cell phones they are just anther distraction!

this is very interesting…but it hkn that we should be aloud to have phones oh yess

i think there should be phones allowed in scholl because there could be and emergancy for like if you get sick or if you get hurt or if your cut or something like that got infected.

Cell phones are exteremely distracting object. If you don’t believe try to conduct a lesson as a teacher while being interrupted.

Cell phones have been a really big problem in my classroom this year. I teach secondary math and have many students who text their friends during class instead of paying attention. I have taken up so many cell phones this year! It is extremely difficult to teach when cell phones are ringing or vibrating and taking the kids’ attention away from their work. I’m all for the ban…I wish our school system would follow suit.

i’m a teacher in texas, & this is a good thing. unfortunately it also displays the chronic american problem of parents unwilling to cross the line for accountability & culpability, & acknowledge themselves & their children as being at the root & source of a problem

I agree with the ruling I have witness first hand that cell phones are a big distractor from learning. I hope the ban continues although parents do not like the idea.

As a high school math teacher, I have personally witnessed students using their cell phones to cause riots and mayhem. One student contacts another to state where and when a particular incident (e.g. - a fight) will occur. Then, the students literally stampede down the halls running down everything in sight in order to get to the brawl. It feels and looks like (what used to be called) “wilding.”

The safety of students requires that cell phones be banned. I teach in a high school where what Consuela stated (see comment above) has come to fruition. This year one teacher and two students needed to be taken to the hospital (during separate events) when they were literally stampeded and badly hurt.

I am an student and I don’t like the ban because sometimes I don’t have enogh money for the pay phone and my metro card might be gone and I can get on the bus or train. if it is constitutional for parnets to contact there kids the why is banning cell phones still going on some kids don’t go straight home for school. some nyc high schools can bring there cell phones in, yes they are better schools but they are capable to do the same things , other kids in baber schools can do.

I am an student and I don’t like the ban because sometimes I don’t have enogh money for the pay phone and my metro card might be gone and I can get on the bus or train. if it is constitutional for parnets to contact there kids the why is banning cell phones still going on some kids don’t go straight home for school. some nyc high schools can bring there cell phones in, yes they are better schools but they are capable to do the same things , other kids in baber schools can do.

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