In a ruling that could have implications for school systems from coast to coast, a New York state appeals court has upheld a ban on cell phones in the nation’s largest school system.

The New York City Department of Education passed rules in September 2005 barring students from having their phones in public schools.

School officials, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have called the phones a distraction and say they could be used for nefarious purposes, including cheating.

Parents insist they need to stay in touch with their children in case of emergencies, like what happened Sept. 11, 2001. They call the ban irrational and unsafe and say it intrudes on their right to determine what is best for their children.

City lawyers argued that education officials had the right to make policy decisions–"the kind government officials make all the time"–about devices students may have at school.

The state Supreme Court’s Appellate Division agreed. In an April 22 ruling, the court said that nothing about the ban interferes with any of the rights claimed by the parents, nor does it prevent students and their parents from communicating before and after school.

"The cell phone ban does not directly and substantially interfere with any of the rights alleged by the parents," wrote Justice Angela Mazzarelli in the unanimous opinion. 

"If adults cannot be fully trusted to practice proper cell-phone etiquette, then neither can children," she wrote.

The judges said that while they understood parents’ concerns, the ban is a reasonable one because cell phones are disruptive in classes, and past incidents show that students have used cell phones to cheat on tests.

"We are extremely disappointed," said Norman Siegel, lawyer for the parents and students. "We strongly believe the ban is unconstitutional and illegal, and we will not rest until the prohibition is reversed."

The ban came about as New York stepped up its scrutiny of what gets in and out of schools–a policy aimed primarily at finding weapons. Along the way, schools confiscated thousands of cell phones. Students responded by sneaking phones inside their lunches and under their clothes, or paying neighborhood stores small fees to hold their phones during the day.

"We believe that the court correctly concluded that the objections to the cell-phone policy raised issues for the chancellor’s consideration, rather than for the courts," said Michael Cardozo, the city Corporation Counsel, in a statement. "Moreover, the policy does not violate the constitutional rights of students or parents. It is an important and ‘reasonable’ measure to ‘maintain order in the schools,’ as the court found."

"The Department of Education is gratified that the policy, which encourages a productive learning environment among students, will remain in place," the statement added.

New York City has more than 1,400 schools and 1.1 million students.

The decision came a few months after Joel I. Klein, the city’s school chancellor, launched the "Million" Motivation campaign, an initiative designed to help students internalize connections between education and success.

Participating students in the pilot program, which will operate in seven middle schools, will receive a free cell phone, with opportunities to earn minutes and other rewards if the students achieve academic goals established by school principals.

At the same time, the phones will be used as a platform to communicate directly with students by teachers and administrators and to "re-brand" achievement through a messaging campaign and mentoring program.

The messaging campaign will spotlight successful professionals in a range of occupations who can serve as role models to students who might never have considered a viable profession or way of life. Students will get workplace experience, life coaching, and academic help through a mentoring program that cements the core messages of the campaign, officials said.

Some parents have questioned the message the program sends, when phones are banned from the city’s schools.

Although the April 22 ruling comes from a New York state appeals court, it could affect how courts in other states decide similar cases challenging school cell-phone bans, experts say.

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Cell-phone ruling