- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

Is the answer true or false? Respond to that via cellular phone during class, and you could wind up in the principal’s office. Cellular phones rank as important status symbols among teens, but they’re also being used to cheat.

Students need only turn off the phone’s sound, type the answer and hit send. Instantly, the student across the room receives the correct answer through text messaging. These young cellular-phone users can even transmit messages to someone in another classroom and also record, store and retrieve test answers.

Kenneth Dickerson, assistant principal at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School in Northwest, says he hasn’t caught anyone cheating with cellular phones, but if students are seen talking on them in school, the phones are confiscated. If the students want to retrieve the devices, their parents must pick them up. Future violations could lead to suspension.

“Kids are entitled to have cell phones as long as they turn them off when they get in the building,” Mr. Dickerson says. “They can’t use them at all during the school day, even at lunchtime.”

Intrinsically, Mr. Dickerson says, there is nothing wrong with cellular phones, but he doesn’t want to see them cause problems in class. Therefore, the policy takes a preventive approach.

“It’s a communication age,” he says. “A lot of teachers are parents, and we want to be in contact with our children also, but we just don’t want the cell phones to be abused.”

“We don’t allow cell phones in the classroom, period,” says Bobbie Holman, business manager at Merritt Educational Center in Northeast. “If the child has a cell phone, they could easily cheat. It also could be a sign of having an extracurricular activity outside school, such as selling drugs. It’s the same policy with pagers. We don’t allow those, either.”

Even if parents furnish their children with cellular phones to improve communication, Ms. Holman says, the phones still are not allowed in the classrooms. The devices are supposed to remain in lockers and can be used during locker periods or lunch hour. If parents want to check up on their children, they can always call the school and have the child paged to the office, she says.

If parents understood the temptations associated with carrying cellular phones in class, they might not give the phones to their children, she says.

“Text messaging isn’t necessarily creating new cheaters, but it makes it easier for those who cheat to do so,” says Donald McCabe, founder of the Center for Academic Integrity (CAI) at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Marketers work hard at enticing the under-18 set with brightly colored cellular phones. Many parents also love the enhanced sense of security and connection they feel when their children carry cellular phones. For teachers and school administrators, though, the presence of cellular phones anywhere in the school building can cause problems above and beyond the cheating threat.

At Pleasantville High School in New York, cellular phones aren’t allowed in classrooms during the day, says Leah MacDonald, regional director of the New York State Middle School Association, but students can keep them in their lockers.

The phones have yet to be cited in any cheating cases in this particular Westchester County school, but Ms. MacDonald believes they have a divisive effect.

“There are the kids with the nice clothes and the phones, and then there are the kids who wear the same old small backpack. And kids can use cell phones to talk about other kids, a form of bullying,” Ms. MacDonald says.

Shaping school policy about cellular phones often requires negotiation with parents, many of whom hand the phones to children as young as 10 in an effort to stay in touch.

“In speaking with parents, we found that many want [their children] to have [the phones] for after-school use, so they can find their son or daughter,” says Jeannette Stern, principal of Wantagh Middle School on Long Island.

Miss Stern says the school worked with parents to create a compromise. No cellular phones can be used in school during the day. If students bring phones to school, they are required to keep the phones out of sight.

“If an adult sees a cell phone during the school day, it is brought to the main office, where the student calls home and explains that a parent must come and pick up the cell phone,” Miss Stern says.

In some families, cellular phones have taught children a difficult lesson about responsibility.

“My grandma was getting a new cell phone, so she gave me hers,” says Sherri Carey, a ninth-grade student at Pleasantville High School. “I was only supposed to have it for a week, but I kept it for two months.”

Sherri ran up a $1,600 bill.

Experts advise parents to follow two simple rules: Analyze the phone bill together every month and tell the teen he or she will be responsible for the bill if it exceeds the agreed-upon amount. Parents also can help safeguard against cheating by clicking into the phone’s text-messaging history.

Ultimately, it will fall to the schools to reduce cheating. Mr. McCabe says the best way to battle the threat of cellular-phone cheating is for a school to adopt an honor code.

Academic honor codes are the ideal way to deal with the problem, Mr. McCabe says, because “they place the responsibility squarely on the students’ shoulders.”

Staff writer Jen Waters contributed to this story.

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