2006-05-03 / Editorials

Cell Phones, Used Wisely, Belong In School

A program to search for weapons through random searches at New York City schools went into effect last Wednesday. Police officers set up portable metal detectors at a Brooklyn high school and found one student carrying a box cutter, for which they issued a summons. They also found a knife, which had been dumped in a garbage receptacle.

The search also turned up 129 cell phones and 19 audio devices, such as CD and MP3 players and iPods. The confiscated items were placed in the custody of the principal, who was expected to return them at his discretion, possibly at the end of the school day.

The search program instituted by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is intended to address some of the violence plaguing schools in New York City. Certainty, confiscating weapons is a step in the right direction. There is no place for box cutters, knives of any kind or other weapons in a school.

Cell phones are a different matter. When some of us were younger, pay telephones were ubiquitous and many of our parents made sure we carried a dime with us so we could contact them in case of an emergency. Today, working pay phones are few and far between. Children travel even more extensively than we did, especially to and from high school, and parents have no way to contact their children or vice versa--when on their way to the subway or on the bus without cell

phones. If there is trouble on a subway or bus line, a cell phone is the only way children can let their parents know that they are delayed but still safe and well.

Even 20 years ago a person walking down a sidewalk talking into one of the first cellular phones was an odd sight. The situation has changed radically now, and, we think, for the better. Nearly everyone has a cell phone. In some cases, cell phones are more affordable than a socalled landline phone and constitute the only phone in a particular family. Without them, many working families could not possibly manage to get their children safely to and from the different schools that their children attend, the case in many instances.

More than that, cell phones can be lifesavers. A child being followed home from school by a suspicious person can call parents or the '911' emergency hotline for help. Cell phones that take and transmit photographs have caught perverts and other criminals literally in the act. Cell phones have been used to call for help in medical emergencies and have saved lives because someone could stay with a victim and administer first aid with the help of a '911' operator. In case of a natural disaster or man-made catastrophe, parents and children can contact each other without searching for a working landline pay phone, a search that may well prove fruitless.

Cell phones should be turned off in class The phones that take pictures should

not be used to transmit test answers, and instant messaging is a distraction that has no place in a classroom-or in study hall. Its use is the electronic equivalent of whispering in class or passing notes. Teachers are well within their rights to require cell phones to be silenced during class sessions and to address these infractions of the rules.

We feel strongly, however, that cell phones should not be confiscated at the schoolhouse door. Cell phones long since ceased to be a frivolous luxury. They have demonstrated their practicality and usefulness many times over. Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg should direct that the confiscated cell phones be returned immediately and should take steps to ensure that random weapons searches will, indeed, result in the seizing and confiscating of real weapons designed and made for no other reason than to injure and kill. When used responsibly, which, we hope parents, teachers and school administrators will stress, cell phones can foil crimes and save lives. Our schoolchildren should be allowed to carry them without hindrance or threat of disciplinary action. Otherwise, parents and guardians should consider protests and similar actions to get their point across. The people who made the thoughtless decision to ban cell phones from city schools just don't get the importance of being in contact with the children in one's care--especially in New York City, and especially after 9/11.

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