As students rushed to get in touch with their parents in the anxious hours after the September 11 attacks, Fairfax Principal Ann Monday decided she had bigger worries than enforcing her school’s ban on cellular phones.
The attacks have led school officials to reconsider long-standing bans on cell phones and pagers during school hours.
“Enforcing a cell-phone ban was not on our agenda” that day at Robinson Secondary School, Ms. Monday said. “Taking care of the emotional needs of our students was.”
When word spread of an airliner crashing into the Pentagon, just 14 miles away, the phones began appearing everywhere. “The reality was that many kids are carrying around phones, and carrying them around responsibly,” she said.
Last week, her school district decided to let students carry cell phones, which must be kept off during school hours.
Judy Seltz of the American Association of School Administrators said superintendents are reporting a “fairly low-key” shift toward loosening restrictions since September 11.
“Pagers and cell phones are not the oddity they were five years ago. I think it’s harder for schools to make an issue of something that’s so commonplace these days,” she said.
Knox Bricken, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a Boston technology research company, said as many as 2 million people bought cell phones after the attacks.
She said a recent survey found that 32 percent of children ages 10 to 19 use cell phones, compared with 25 percent last year. Overall, 42 percent of Americans use cell phones.
In Boston and several New York suburbs, students may keep cell phones with parental permission. Other cities maintain a virtual “don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, hoping students will keep the devices quiet so teachers do not have to confiscate them.
School districts in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, Baltimore and other big cities are retaining their bans for now. Officials say cell phones and pagers are distractions and easily can be used for drug deals or bomb threats the reason for the bans in the first place.
In California, the principal of James Monroe High in North Hills wants the legislature to repeal a statewide ban. Gregory J. Vallone estimates as many as 70 percent of his 4,600 students carry cell phones. Penalizing most students because a few still use them for illegal means is not practical or fair, he said.
In Maryland, several school districts moved to drop their cell-phone bans this fall after the legislature struck down a ban for most of the state’s 24 school districts.
Dana Dembrow, the lawmaker who sponsored the repeal, said the 1987 ban “was overkill in the extreme.” He called it a throwback to a time when only drug dealers had the devices.
“Parents want to be able to get in touch with their kids on an immediate basis,” said Bob Gardner, PTA president at the Fairfax school.
Last month, the school board in Montgomery County voted unanimously to let high school students have cell phones if the devices were turned off during school hours.
Dustin Jeter, a senior at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, said virtually all of his friends carried cell phones even before the ban was lifted.
“A lot of teachers and administrators were put in a hard place, because if they saw it they’d have to decide whether to suspend a student for a couple of days or just look the other way,” he said.
Dustin said cell phones were invaluable after the attacks because local phone lines were clogged. “I think it was just a matter of getting in touch with family, letting them know that everything was OK, trying to make plans for where they would be meeting,” he said.