Citing violence, Milwaukee schools ban cell phones

School systems in places such as New York City and Los Angeles have dialed up controversy by banning students’ cell phones in school, often because the devices can be a distraction in class. But in Milwaukee, the decision to ban cell phones has a different ring to it.

Female students fighting inside a Milwaukee high school recently used their cell phones to summon about 20 family members and other adults, causing a chaotic brawl in front of the school.

Six students and three adults were arrested in the incident in January, but no one was seriously injured, said Mike Heese, safety security assistant at the city’s Bradley Tech High School.

It was the latest in dozens of similar incidents during the past three years in Wisconsin’s largest school district. As a result, Milwaukee has banned cell phones from its 217 schools.

“We consider [cell phones] almost as weapons, because when they call, we’re the ones out in front and we don’t know these people are coming,” Heese said.

With the move, Milwaukee joins a growing number of districts nationwide that prohibit or limit students’ use of cell phones.

“We’ve had enough, and so have our employees,” Milwaukee Superintendent William Andrekopoulos said.

Peter Pochowski, the district’s director of safety and security, said Milwaukee schools have had about one violent incident involving cell phones per month during the past three years, but it’s worsened over the past year.

Kenneth Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, said parents pressured many schools to loosen rules on cell phones after the Columbine school killings and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

However, in the past few years schools have reversed course, mostly because of concerns that cell phones created distractions or were used to cheat or take inappropriate photos, Trump said.

Milwaukee officials sent home a memo about the ban to alert parents of their nearly 90,000 students. They also posted the ban on the district’s web site, held a news conference, and placed signs in English, Spanish, and Hmong in schools.

Jamilynn Brushel, 18, a senior at Bradley Tech, thinks the district should allow responsible students to carry phones. She said she walks to an internship a few blocks from school and sometimes needs to call if she gets delayed.

If students want to start a fight, they will, with or without cell phones, she said.

“They won’t need people coming in,” Brushel said. “They’ll just get people who are already here.”

Brushel said she’d rather see stricter security guards and teachers. She expects students to bring their phones to school but just keep them hidden.

So does Dorcas Lopez, 31, who has two children, including a 12-year-old middle-schooler. Her son needs the phone to call her when he’s done with basketball practice, and knowing he can call if he needs help gives her a sense of security, she said.

However, as a social work assistant at a Milwaukee high school, Lopez said she’s seen teens misuse phones to get someone to lie for them to get them out of school. She doesn’t feel any safer with the ban.

The district is still working on how it will enforce the ban, with schools having some discretion, Milwaukee schools spokesman Philip Harris said.

If students are caught with cell phones, schools officials could have conferences with them or their parents, suspend the students, or temporarily confiscate their phones. The district will expel students who use cell phones to summon outsiders for a fight, Andrekopoulos said.

Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm said he also will take a tougher stance. Penalties in the past were often fines for disorderly conduct. Now, Chisholm said, he will consider felony charges against an adult who causes harm to someone at a school. Andrekopoulos said principals can make exceptions to the ban for hardship cases. “I think people have to rise themselves up from a level of convenience to a level of safety,” he said. “I think that’s where we’re at in this country.”

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