School systems might put cell phone rules on hold


It used to happen all the time.

Chris Rhodes would stay after school for choir practice or the ski club or dance rehearsal. Invariably, her schedule would change, and the 15-year-old South Carroll High School student did not have any reliable way of getting in touch with her mother.

This year, Chris got a cellular phone, which, like many classmates, she carries in school but does not turn on until the school day is over.

Still, that's a violation of the Carroll County school system's policy -- a loosely enforced rule that allows students to keep wireless phones in their cars but prohibits the phones in school during the day.

Carroll County is the latest of many Baltimore-area school systems and private schools to revisit those rules as cell phones become a more ubiquitous -- and some say necessary -- part of life in the wake of such national tragedies as the Columbine High School shooting and the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.

Most school systems, including Howard and Harford counties, have responded by relaxing cell phone bans in school buildings. Others, such as Anne Arundel, are grappling with the issue.

'Our share of scares'

"We now know that we're not immune to that and we've had our share of scares here in the county as far as possible threats to our kids," said Laura Rhodes, Chris' mother. "It makes you feel good that your kid has an outside line if they need to get to you or to the police, that someone in that classroom might increase the chances of help arriving."

Until Oct. 1, Maryland law prohibited students from bringing cell phones, pagers and other wireless communication devices into public schools. That ban had originated in 1989, when state legislators took aim at pagers used in drug sales; in practice, the ban was extended to other electronic devices.

A law passed during the 2001 legislative session allows each school system -- except for Baltimore City, Baltimore County and six Eastern Shore counties that opted out of the law -- to set their own rules.

Some school systems, including Harford and Montgomery counties, approved policies that allow only high school students to bring phones to school, adding different restrictions about whether they must be kept in lockers or merely turned off during the school day.

Students in Howard County schools who previously were forced to leave cell phones in cars or at home now can bring them into school, provided they remain off during school hours.

Anne Arundel County school officials are working out details of a proposed repeal of the ban; that measure failed to win school board approval last fall. Some board members disagreed about which wireless devices should be included in the policy; others wanted to spell out disciplinary measures for students caught using them during the school day.

Many private schools, including McDonogh, Boys' Latin, St. Paul's and Roland Park Country School, have balanced their students' need to contact parents with a desire to keep classrooms free from the disruption of ringing phones. The phones are allowed on campus but must be kept in cars or lockers, or turned off.

"We know that a number of our students do carry them because they drive and their parents are concerned about their safety and having some way to communicate with them," said Hillary Jacobs, director of advancement with the Park School, which does not have rules specifically addressing cell phone use.

'A safety valve'

"The understanding is -- and it seems to be very well respected -- that the use of cell phones is not acceptable in school, and teachers have not had any problems with students making calls or receiving calls in school," Jacobs added. "But with so many kids driving, I think parents' feeling is that it's a requirement or a safety valve of some sort."

At St. Paul's School for Girls, administrators noticed a spike in student cell phone use after Sept. 11 and are deciding whether a policy on proper use is needed.

"At this point, we're not taking them away," Nancy Marbury, assistant head of the girls' school, said, "but we're not sure how we're going to handle it."

High school has not turned into the cell phone gabfest feared by some who wanted to retain the ban in Maryland public schools.

Even at afternoon dismissal, as chatty teen-agers poured out of Eldersburg's Liberty High School on Friday afternoon, few students had phones out and in use as they headed to the parking lot.

"Everybody has them," said senior Matt McDermott, 17, "but most people keep them in their car. I keep mine in the car for emergency reasons, in case I wreck on the way to school."

As junior Beverly Facemire, 16, and her friends piled into Facemire's green Ford Escort in Liberty's student parking lot, they pulled out cell phones to call friends, boyfriends and parents to let them know about plans for the afternoon.

"I have my phone in case I need a ride or my car breaks down or I have to call my mom if I want to make plans," said Facemire, who kept her phone in her book bag last year before she got a car. "All my friends have phones at school."

Even the uncommon occurrence of a cell phone accidentally ringing in class could hardly be considered a distraction, the girls said.

"Everyone knows what it is," Facemire said. "The teachers don't hear it or don't say anything. And you never answer it. You just look around like, 'Oh, that's not mine.'"

Last week, the Carroll school board considered what should happen if a student leaves a cell phone on and it rings in class. The board is scheduled to vote next month on a rules change to allow students to have phones in school if they leave them in their lockers.

Discipline idea

As the board contemplated suspension as a possible disciplinary measure if a phone rings in class, interim schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker offered an idea.

"I think suspension might be a little harsh," he said, "but I think we'll take the phone away and donate it to one of those agencies that programs cell phones to dial 911 for the elderly."

Sun staff writers Lane Harvey Brown, Stephanie Desmon, Stephen Kiehl and Tanika White contributed to this article.

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