By ELISSA GOOTMAN (NYT) 787 words
Published: June 15, 2006
School Cellphone Ban Brings, Yes, a Lot of Talk in the City Council
For evidence that the ban on cellphones in New York City public schools has hit a nerve, look no further than yesterday's City Council hearing, where members clamored to share personal anecdotes. There were tales about their children's phones, stories about their neighbors' children's phones, and memories of the troubles that marred their own school days, pre-cellphone.
Councilman Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn said that the cellphone allowed him a measure of long-distance control over his middle-school daughter. Councilwoman Letitia James, also of Brooklyn, said that in opposing the ban she was fighting for her neighbor, whose granddaughter goes to high school far from home.
And Councilwoman Jessica S. Lappin of Manhattan quarreled with one of the city's arguments for the ban, that cellphones are at the center of fights, by recounting her own memories of schoolyard bullying.
'When I went to Stuyvesant and none of us had cellphones,' Ms. Lappin said, 'people came from neighboring schools and tried to beat us up anyway.'
Yesterday's hearing was the latest forum for a debate that has raged since April, when Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced that the police would conduct surprise scans at middle and high schools searching for weapons and other contraband. Principals sent home letters reminding parents that cellphones were also banned in schools, setting off a frenzy at the many schools that have allowed students to carry them.
Never mind that the Council has little authority over the matter, since the 1.1-million-student school system is largely regulated by state law and mayoral policy. Parents, students, principals and mayoral aides testified, and at times, the lawmakers turned pointedly against the administration.
'He has drawn a line in the sand,' Councilman Robert Jackson of Manhattan, chairman of the Education Committee, said, referring to the mayor. 'And there will be a battle.'
Administrative officials, backed by a panel of three principals, defended the ban, saying that students have used phones to cheat on exams, summon friends for fights, take illicit locker-room photographs of classmates and disrupt class.
'The reality is that if cellphones are allowed in our schools, they will be used, and they will be used inappropriately,' said Deputy Mayor Dennis M. Walcott.
Mr. Walcott said that since the beginning of the school year, 693 cellphones had been reported stolen on school grounds. Taking a page from his interrogators, he offered his own credentials as a father of four, saying that in emergencies he never had any problem contacting his children through the main school office.
According to the city, the authorities have confiscated 36 weapons, mostly knives, since scanning started -- and 3,027 cellphones. Many of those phones have been returned.
For more than three hours, the hearing, held by the Education and Public Safety committees, veered from a debate over the nature of democracy to the problems with mayoral control of the school system to who cares more about schoolchildren's safety -- the administration or the cellphone proponents.
It was the first hearing on a bill signed by more than three dozen council members, which would give students the right to carry cellphones to and from school but is silent on what happens after they walk through the door.
'We recognize, whether we like it or not, state education law precludes us from regulating what happens on school grounds,' said Councilman Lewis A. Fidler of Brooklyn, the bill's primary sponsor. 'Obviously between coming and going, they have to be someplace.'
As of now, the Council has enough votes to override a mayoral veto on its bill. While some members said they were willing to take the case to court, Mr. Fidler said he hoped that the Council's pressure would encourage the mayor to compromise.
Councilman Domenic M. Recchia Jr. of Brooklyn suggested that the City Education Department instruct parents to buy their children cellphones without photographic or text-messaging capabilities, inspiring a discussion of whether such pared-down phones even exist.
Mr. de Blasio suggested that the city build lockers where students could store their cellphones.
Mr. Walcott said that while he was 'truly empathetic' to parents' desires to stay in touch with their children, the city was 'not moving away' from its policy. He said the city was so uninterested in compromise that it would not, as one council member requested, convene a task force on the matter.
Dana O'Brien, 15, a sophomore at Fiorello H. La Guardia High School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, said she believed the scanning program was 'a violation of our right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, since a turned-off cellphone is not really threatening.'
Dana could not stay to answer council members' questions. She was sorry, she explained, but she had a Regents exam.