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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 10:44 GMT 11:44 UK
New Yorkers fight mobile phone ban
By Matthew Wells
BBC News, New York

A growing revolt is under way in New York City by parents, teachers and pupils against a city-wide ban on the use of mobile phones in public schools.

The dispute revolves around an 18-year-old rule which bans all electronic communications devices from school premises, introduced at a time when the most advanced hardware around was a bleeper.

Campaigners say that times have changed, and a mobile phone is an essential part of urban family life, in a city where the fear of terrorist attack still looms large.

Devin and Andre Colon
Under the current rule, pupils should leave their mobiles at home

New York has the biggest public education system in the US, with around 1.1 million children.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg seized control of it during his first term, after decades of chronic institutional failure.

But now, he is the one being branded a Luddite by angry parents, council members and teenagers, who are fed up with his insistence that mobile phones remain outside the school gates.

The issue has developed following a series of random security sweeps of schools that do not have full-time metal detectors in place.

"What they are finding is cell phones," says Principal Steven Satin, who runs a large high school in midtown Manhattan - a "scanning school" where kids are required to enter through detectors whenever they come into the building.

He finds it relatively easy to enforce the ban, but it is different for the detector-free schools facing random checks.

Steven Satin
Principal Steven Satin supports the ban on mobiles

"There're not finding weapons, they're not finding drugs, because the students are savvy enough, when they see all this security - they just don't come into the building if they're carrying something," he added.

Mr Satin is fully behind the mayor's uncompromising stance on phones, and Mr Bloomberg has been repeatedly defending his position in public.

"Schools are for learning, and these devices are diversions from learning," the mayor said on his weekly radio show this month.

"I also vaguely remember going to school with 40 kids in the classroom, and we didn't have cell phones."

Safety concerns

One of the mothers disagreeing profoundly with that view from the top is Carmen Colon.

She is the president of a city-wide parental advisory group, which has gathered thousands of signatures in the form of a petition.

"As a single-parent of three children, at three different levels, in three different buildings, I have no choice but to use a cell phone to co-ordinate logistically, where we are going to meet before and after - it's that simple."

Carmen Colon
Parents say it is a matter of safety for their children to have mobiles

Other parents, attending a regular feedback meeting in downtown Brooklyn, are going further.

One mother, who is also a school teacher, told me her family at least, was going to keep on breaking the law.

"If he couldn't take his cell phone, I wouldn't want him travelling to school in Manhattan... I'm going to help my kids figure out a way to hide their cell phones so that they'll have it."

Carmen's two oldest sons, 17-year-old Devin, and Andre, 13, say the mayor's childhood memories of a life without cell phones are just anachronistic.

Children must travel further, and face a more complex, hostile environment than when the mayor was in short trousers, they say.

"There are certain things that shouldn't be allowed in school, but cell phones help us in times of need," says Devin.

Andre adds classmates who want to waste time or cheat will do so, with or without their phones.

"A lot of kids spend half the time in class not paying attention anyway. If they're going to text each other in class, they're just losing out on their education."

Innovation help

Principal Satin says that as a parent himself, he understands the concerns of people like Ms Colon, but adds that in times of emergency, there are always landlines available at school.

In the wake of the 11 September attacks and the paralysing power blackout of August 2003, the cell phone networks all went down.

"We do not have the capability of storing phones for kids - how many people is it going to take to return those phones?

"Some of our students have taken up that cause, and there are businesses around here that hold the phones for the students [during school hours] for a nominal fee," he said.

Several lawmakers in the state capitol are introducing legislation which could override the mayor's ban on phones, and a large number of city councillors have vowed not to let the issue drop.

One compromise solution may involve technological innovation.

All sides say that if software could be introduced that shuts down reception in school areas during the day, everyone would be happy.

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