District Must Declare War on Cell Phones

by Christopher Paslay


In an article last spring in the Philadelphia Inquirer, local radio talk show host Michael Smerconish proposed that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should take the death penalty off the books because it is so rarely enforced. 


“. . . the death penalty in the commonwealth is a sham, a paper tiger, and a form of punishment that exists in name only.”  Smerconish wrote.  “Consider that there are currently 228 individuals on death row in Pennsylvania. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, three people have been put to death (the last was Gary Heidnick nine years ago)—and only after each of the three gave up his appeal. It’s time to stop kidding ourselves. The death penalty needs to be removed from the Pennsylvania sentencing options, at least until the appellate procedure is streamlined by a legislature willing to oversee judicial obfuscation.”    


I believe the same actions should be taken with the Philadelphia School District’s cell phone policy: It should be properly enforced or taken off the books. 


The District’s cell phone policy can be found in the Student Code of Conduct for the 2008-08 school year.  Article 6.5. (Retention of Beepers, Cell Phones and Telephonic Devices Policy) states:


 The School District prohibits the possession and use of telephonic paging devices, or pagers, on school grounds, at school sponsored activities and on buses or other vehicles provided by the School District.


In addition, the District prohibits students from using personal cell phones on school grounds during school hours. The principal has the authority to address issues that are disruptive to the academic environment that may arise from the improper use of telecommunication devices. A copy of the complete policy can be found on http://www.phila.k12.pa.us.


The District’s cell phone policy in the Student Code of Conduct described above is interesting when you look at it closely.  Students are prohibited from possessing pagers, but not cell phones.  Students are simply prohibited from using personal cell phones on school grounds during school hours. 


And even if students were flat out prohibited from bringing cell phones to school (this used to be the case a while back), there is a gigantic loophole built into the system: Principals have the right to grant students permission to carry a cell phone under special circumstances.  Special circumstances usually involve safety issues—such as a long commute to and from school—but in many cases, a “special circumstance” is nothing more than a way for a school to absolve itself from trying to enforce an unenforceable rule.


Ten years ago, before cell phones, there were no “special circumstances”.  Family emergencies were handled by school counselors, and important phone calls were made in the main office.  Today, cell phone companies, along with a generation of teenagers addicted to electronic gadgets, have convinced us that “special circumstances” are legitimate.  


I have very good classroom management.  The high school where I teach made AYP two out of the last three years, and the scores on my students’ benchmark tests are 10% higher than the District average.     


But with that said, I am fighting what I call the “cell phone epidemic” on a daily basis.  Every time these multi-billion dollar cell phone companies come out with a new form of technological crack, my students get more and more hooked.  It is pathetic.  Some of my student’s cell phones are their entire existence.  They are addicted in every sense of the word: Psychologically, emotionally, and even physiologically.  Studies have proven this is possible.  Just as pornography is chemically addictive (because of the release of chemicals in the pleasure centers of the brain), so are cell phones.


I watch students struggle with their addictions every day.  Some literally can’t put their phone away for a full class period.  They just CANNOT do it.  They try, but they go back to their iPhone or BlackBerry the way an overeater goes back to a bag of potato chips.  They text message on the sly, quietly hiding their phone under their desk or in their pocket.  And they check their phones all the time.  Five, ten, fifteen times a period. 


I’ve battled my students for years over their cell phones.  Made rules, called parents, wrote detentions, used all types of positive reinforcements.  And do you know what?  I’m losing the battle.  Why?  Because I’m swimming up stream against the current.  I’m battling society and the greedy, socially irresponsible cell phone industry.  I’m battling the kids.  I’m battling the parents.  Just last week a student got a call from her mother on her cell phone in the middle of class (I checked the ID and it was her mother).  The student answered and started talking right in the middle of my lesson.  I immediately took the student out in the hall to talk to her, but it was of no consequence; the student was empowered by her own mother, and insisted it was an emergency.


If parents aren’t following the rules, how can we expect the kids to?  Worse still, how can we enforce the cell phone policy when there is no adequate repercussion for abusing the rules?  Have you ever tried taking a phone away from a child?  It’s an incredible ordeal.  Some students simply WILL NOT relinquish their phone.  Period.  They are as adamant about their phones as NRA members are about their beloved guns: You’ll take away my phone when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.


Cell phones are a city-wide problem.  In my opinion, there is only one way to stop this epidemic: total abstinence.  Just like with problem drinkers in AA, students should not be permitted to have a phone in school.  End of discussion.    


So the District must do one of two things: Ban ALL cell phones in ALL schools at ALL times (they must be confiscated by school security when used or found on a student’s person).  Or the District must give up its cell phone charade altogether: Just take the policy off the books and be done with it.


The former would be my choice.  If we’re going to have a cell phone policy, let’s put some teeth into it.  We must declare war on all electronic devices and stem this epidemic while there’s still time.     


2 thoughts on “District Must Declare War on Cell Phones

  1. Good article that makes sense. However, it is an issue that literally puts several layers of decision makers–between a rock and a hard place. By the way, this is also a problem in college. I know several professors or instructors and they tell me the same stories. Blatant demonstrations of cell phone use–during a lecture or lesson. Rudeness out the kazoo.
    Maybe this issue can be re-positioned as a character and/or courtesy issue. Just like those rude people in a bank or restaurant–who talk loudly and incessantly–someone (maybe common sense society) can educate them on what is appropriate behavior. The offenders should excuse themselves and go to a neutral corner or somewhere isolated. If they can’t isolate they talk quietly or even say–I’ll call you back when I am out of this line. ***YES, THEY ACTUALLY CAN THINK OF OTHERS BEFORE THEMSELVES. THEY ACTUALLY THINK ABOUT THE COMMON GOOD.
    Giving Suggestions are easy because I don’t have to take the effort or action, but here is a suggestion for teachers. Treat the students as young adults and tell them–“I know you might have people calling you, but tell them to call you at lunch or at another appropriate time.” IF THERE IS A POSSIBLE EMERGENCY PLEASE TELL ME IN ADVANCE AND I WILL ALLOW YOU TO LEAVE THE ROOM AND TAKE THE CALL. Of course, we can discuss what an emergency is or is not. 99% of the calls are not critical and it can become more obvious to them that the call should not be accepted or made during a class. Maybe it is the idealistic dreamer in me, but I do think students can be reasoned with —SOME OF THE TIME. As we experience the road rage and other nuts who “over- react” about everything, reasoning with others DOES NOT ALWAYS WORK.
    In a nut shell, this is an insidious problem that has no easy solution. At least taking it off the books will stop the hypocrisy.

  2. The cell phone issue is just one more example of how the school district sets policy then fails to support teachers. We are expected to take cell phones and turn them over to the administration. The parents is suppose to come in to get them back, but too often the child complains to the administration and they cave in and hand back their phones. I understand the need of cell phones in the age of so many latch key kids, but to leave teachers in the middle of this problem is unfair. Either implement the policy 100% or forget it. We’re wasting time trying to enforce school policies that the school district sets, but refuses to follow through on.

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