Research and anecdotal evidence suggest some schools, in the wake of the terrorist attacks just over two months ago, are reexamining their attitudes towards students using cell phones. The following report takes a closer look at this emerging phenomenon:

As students rushed to get in touch with their parents in the anxious hours after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Principal Ann Monday decided she had bigger worries than enforcing her school’s ban on cellular phones.

The attacks have led school officials to reconsider long-standing bans on cell phones and pagers during school hours.

“Enforcing a cell phone ban was not on our agenda” that day at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va., Monday said. “Taking care of the emotional needs of our students was.”

When word spread of an airliner crashing into the Pentagon, just 14 miles away, the phones began appearing everywhere. “The reality was that many kids are carrying around phones, and carrying them around responsibly,” Monday said.

In early November, her school district decided to let students carry cell phones, which must be kept off during school hours. But Fairfax County isn’t alone in its policy shift.

Judy Seltz of the American Association of School Administrators said superintendents are reporting a “fairly low-key” shift toward loosening restrictions since Sept. 11.

“Pagers and cell phones are not the oddity they were five years ago. I think it’s harder for schools to make an issue of something that’s so commonplace these days,” she said.

Knox Bricken, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston technology research company, said that after the attack as many as 2 million people bought cell phones.

She said a recent survey found that 32 percent of children ages 10 to 19 use cell phones, compared with 25 percent last year. Overall, 42 percent of Americans use cell phones, Bricken said. Her company predicts that in 2003, more than half the youngsters and adults in the country each will have cell phones.

In Boston and several New York suburbs, students may keep cell phones with parental permission. Other cities maintain a virtual “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, hoping students will keep the devices quiet so teachers do not have to confiscate them.

School districts in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and other big cities are retaining their bans for now. Officials say cell phones and pagers are a distraction and easily can be used for drug deals or bomb threats—the reason most often cited for the bans in the first place.

In California, the principal of James Monroe High School in North Hills wants the Legislature to repeal a statewide ban. Gregory J. Vallone estimates that as many as 70 percent of his 4,600 students carry cell phones. Penalizing most students because a few still use them for illegal means is not practical or fair, he said.

In Maryland, several school districts moved to drop their cell phone bans this fall after the Legislature struck down a statewide ban for most of the state’s 24 school districts.

Dana Dembrow, the lawmaker who sponsored the repeal, said the 1987 ban “was overkill in the extreme.” He called it a throwback to a time when only drug dealers had the devices.

“Parents want to be able to get in touch with their kids on an immediate basis,” said Bob Gardner, PTA president at the Fairfax school.

Last month, the school board in Montgomery County, Md., voted unanimously to let high school students have cell phones if the devices are turned off during school hours.

Dustin Jeter, a senior at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, Md., said virtually all of his friends carried cell phones even before the ban was lifted.

“A lot of teachers and administrators were put in a hard place, because if they saw it, they’d have to decide whether to suspend a student for a couple of days or just look the other way,” he said.

Jeter said cell phones were invaluable after the attacks because local phone lines were clogged. “I think it was just a matter of getting in touch with family, letting them know that everything was OK, trying to make plans for where they would be meeting,” he said.

According to a survey conducted before the Sept. 11 attacks by International Communications Research, 60 percent of teens aged 13 to 19 said their schools forbid them from bringing in beepers and 55 percent said their schools prohibit the use of cell phones.

Links:

American Association of School Administrators
http://www.aasa.org

Yankee Group
http://www.yankeegroup.com

International Communications Research
http://icrsurvey.com/icr/index.htm