Balto. County school board might set cell phone rules


Susan M. Katz resisted joining the cellular phone generation as long as she could, but recent events have broken her resolve.

Her older son Seth was attending school at George Washington University in Washington during the attack Sept. 11 on the Pentagon. His cell phone was the only way they could keep in touch.

Younger son Jonathan, six months into having a driver's license, uses his wireless phone to call and say he has reached his destination -- a requirement for using the car. And her friends' children use the phones to call home for a ride after band practice or a basketball game.

That's why Katz was surprised to learn at a recent Owings Mills High School PTSA meeting that having a cell phone on school grounds violates a state law. Believing that should change, Katz, the group's president, took members' concerns to her state delegate, Michael J. Finifter.

Finifter, an Owings Mills Democrat, introduced a bill this month in the General Assembly to allow the Baltimore County school board to make its own rules regarding cellular telephones, pagers and similar devices.

"Parents want to make sure their kids are safe," Katz said. "After the Columbine incident and after Sept. 11, it's even become more important for parents and kids to be able to communicate quickly. Right now, if the kids are found with a cellular phone on, even if it's not ringing, technically they could be suspended."

The law banning personal communications devices on school grounds was passed in 1989. It was aimed primarily at pagers used in the drug trade; in practice, the ban was extended to other electronic devices. At the time, cell phones were hardly as ubiquitous as they have become. Recognizing that, the Assembly repealed the law a year ago for two-thirds of the 24 school systems, and approved legislation allowing them to write policies on wireless equipment.

Baltimore County, along with the city and six Eastern Shore counties, asked to be left out of the legislation. Baltimore County school board President Donald L. Arnold said then that he wanted to see how the new law worked in other jurisdictions.

This year's bill would apply only to Baltimore County, allowing the school board to write a policy governing the use of wireless equipment. Because times have changed, some expect a different outcome. "9-11 did play some role in this," Finifter said. "The school board may look at this more favorably this year."

A hearing is scheduled before the House Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Finifter said. Since the county school board won't take a stand on the bill until its meeting at 7:30 p.m. that day, the county delegation will wait until March 1 to take an official position, though many delegation members have signed on as co-sponsors.

Several systems have approved policies that allow students to bring phones to school, adding restrictions about whether they must be kept in lockers or merely turned off during the school day.

Baltimore County school board member John A. Hayden III said he wants to know how the rules are working in the other counties before making up his mind.

"Obviously it's a growing, growing, growing method of communication, and it may be hard to avoid the tide ... but I don't want to hear that routinely 15 of them go off in a classroom," he said. "If I thought they were all going to be turned off all day, I wouldn't have a problem."

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