School revises cell phone warning

The Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore principal is sending a second back-to-school letter to parents after threatening in the first version to have students found with cell phones arrested and to confiscate the phones for a semester or more.

School system officials required Anthony L. Harold, principal of Dr. Samuel L. Banks High, to send a new letter after parents complained about the original one, which they received last week. The system learned of the parent concerns from The Sun.

Meanwhile, officials said they will revisit the system's cell phone policy, after the newspaper pointed out that its parent information guide is inconsistent with school board rules about whether students are allowed to carry cell phones. Neither document says a student could be arrested for having a cell phone at school, or that a phone could be confiscated for more than a day.

Most school systems in the metropolitan area -- including Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties -- permit students to possess cell phones as long as they are turned off and stored during the academic day, either in a locker or a backpack. In Harford County, only high school students may carry them.

In the city, an information guide sent annually to parents says cell phones are not allowed and that school authorities may confiscate them and return them at the end of the school day. But official school board rules posted on the system's Web site prohibit the "use, activation or display" of cell phones, but stop short of saying students cannot possess them.

School police in Baltimore routinely search high school students for weapons, so cell phones could easily be found even if they were turned off and kept out of view.

The city school board is in the process of reviewing all of its rules and policies, many of which are outdated.

Edie House, a school system spokeswoman, said a review of the cell phone policy will be a part of that process. In the meantime, she said, parents should follow what's in the most recent information guide -- meaning students should not bring cell phones to school. House said a new information guide would be published next month, though she did not yet know whether it would contain a revised cell phone rule.

"We will notify parents of any changes to that policy," she said.

House declined to comment on Harold's original letter, except to say that the principal was required to rescind it and send parents an updated version.

Nationwide issue

Around the country, schools are grappling with how to handle student possession of what has become a nearly ubiquitous electronic device.

In Calvert County, an honor student was suspended in 2005 for calling his parents, on their way to meet him for a teacher conference, at 2:27 p.m. Though school was dismissed at 2:20, cell phone use was not permitted until 2:40.

In Columbus, Ga., a high school student was suspended the same year for talking on his cell phone during lunch to his mother, who was deployed in Iraq.

Not only can cell phones be disruptive during the school day, but students have been caught using them to cheat on tests. At Severna Park High this spring, students needed to retake an Advanced Placement U.S. history exam after allegations of cheating that included girls text-messaging answers to one another.

At the same time, parents and students argue, having a cell phone on hand is often a matter of safety as well as convenience.

Monica Conner, 16, who will be a junior at Banks when the new academic year starts Monday, says she uses her phone most afternoons to alert her mother when her extracurricular activities are done and she needs a ride home. Her mother, Jennifer Landgraf, says she wants to be able to reach Monica in case of an emergency. The complex where Banks relocated last year was the site of a 2004 shooting, at neighboring Thurgood Marshall High.

"It's absolutely a safety issue," Landgraf said. "Parents need to know where their children are, and kids need to be able to contact their parents."

A Maryland law prohibiting cell phones was repealed for most of the state's school systems in 2001, two years after the killings at Columbine High School in Colorado left parents scrambling to reach their kids. The General Assembly left it to individual systems to set their own policies.

Baltimore's information guide says disabled students who need portable pagers for medical reasons are exempt from the cell phone policy, and students may store cell phones in their cars on school property, as long as they "are not found to be connected with criminal activity."

Original letter

Harold's original letter to parents was generally upbeat and delivered positive news about the increasing graduation rate at Banks. But one paragraph, bolded and italicized, left Landgraf stunned.

"Our policy regarding cell phone use will be more closely enforced," it said. "There are to be no cell phones on campus. [City school system] policy states that students found in possession of a cell phone can be arrested and the phone must always be confiscated and held for a minimum of one semester."

Landgraf said she agrees that students shouldn't be allowed to use phones during the academic day. But to face the possibility of arrest just for possessing one?

"I don't know what to say, other than it's really ridiculous," she said. "And I will still send my daughter to school with her cell phone. I'll instruct her of course not to use it during school time."

Asked in an e-mail message where he got his information for the letter, Harold replied to The Sun to "refer to the Parent Information Guide 2006. It refers to police notification." He declined to comment further, except to write that "it is disappointing that as we launch another wonderful school year we are not collaborating/partnering on the good at Banks, only the voices of concern from a few."

Harold did provide a copy of the revised letter that he will send to parents. The section on cell phone usage quotes verbatim from last year's information guide:

"If a student is found to be in possession of a cell phone it will be confiscated from him or her. Confiscated items will be stored in a secure location, preferably the school's main office, and returned to the individual at the end of the school day with instructions to not bring the item back onto school property again. Students are expected to follow all school rules."

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Mistaken letter sent home

"Our policy regarding cell phone use will be more closely enforced. There are to be no cell phones on campus. [City school system] policy states that students found in possession of a cell phone can be arrested and the phone must always be confiscated and held for a minimum of one semester."

Principal Anthony L. Harold's first letter to parents at Dr. Samuel L. Banks High School

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