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Teachers and students clash over cell phone use in class

on November 18, 2010

In Brennan Nicholas’ 12th grade English class, text-messaging is taking over. Much of the Oakland Tech teacher’s classroom time is spent dealing with the beeping and buzzing of cell phones and the distracted students who opt to text each other under the table, rather than focus on the lesson.  “Cell phones are the bane of my existence,” Nicholas said as he took a moment for himself during his lunch break Tuesday.  “As if our jobs aren’t hard enough. I don’t want to be a disciplinarian all the time.  That’s not my job.”

Despite cell phones’ distracting effect on students, and the nuisance they present to teachers, efforts around the country to ban the phones in schools have been met with resistance and even lawsuits from students and parents. Especially since the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, many parents have been adamant about keeping lines of communication open between themselves and their children at all times.

When a ban on students carrying cell phones was enforced in New York City public schools in 2006, eight parents filed a lawsuit against the Mayor of New York and the Department of Education seeking an overturn of the ban on the grounds that it violated their rights to keep their students safe.  Despite the complaints, the ban was upheld by an appellate court.

To avoid similar complications while still making a statement about the gravity of the issue, East Bay school Benicia High this week upped the penalties associated with using cell phones in class. While students are allowed to use phones during free periods, the administration now reserves the right to confiscate the offending devices for the day, or even for the year, should a student violate the ban on phones during class.

Cell phone sign

This sign, commonly used in exam rooms is on constant display in one Oakland Tech classroom.

Oakland Tech’s official school policy on cell phones is similar to Benecia’s—students are prohibited from using their cell phones at school, other than during lunch periods and before and after school. “There is an undeniable problem with cell phones but we try to address it,” Tech’s principal, Sheilagh Andujar, said this week as she explained the school’s more lenient penalty system, which is left to the discretion of individual teachers. “Our hope is that we can teach students how to use electronics responsibly,” Andujar said.  “They are a great mode of communication and a great resource for looking up information.”

For some Tech students, using cell phones responsibly isn’t an issue. Freshman Edgar Sanchez said that while he brings his phone to school every day, he rarely uses it. “I only text around lunchtime to see where me and my friends are going to meet up,” he said.

But many Tech students admit that their dependency on the phones often trumps the obligation they feel to obey school policy.

“I need my cell phone — it’s my life,” said junior Quianna Benson, who fiddled with the flip screen of her Sidekick phone as she confessed that she often texts under the table during class.

Freshman Arnold Hill said he uses his phone “as soon as the teacher looks away.”

Frequent cell phone use is a necessity among his friends as a way “to talk to females,” he explained.

Aside from its distracting nature, cell phone use during class has presented more serious complications for teachers. Nicholas said some students have used the devices to share answers during exams. “I had to tear up exams and make them redo the whole thing,” he said. “It’s not a joke.”

While some Tech teachers commended Benecia’s new cell phone penalty system, they seem to enjoy the liberty of customizing their own disciplinary procedure.

Nicholas’  technique for stopping what he calls “the cell phone nightmare” in his class involves docking points from students’ citizenship mark, which makes up ten percent of their final grade. “If I have a student whose cell phone is a constant source of disruption in class, then they are getting an F in citizenship, I’m sorry,” he said.

Another Tech teacher who declined to give her name has a zero-phone-tolerance policy that she says is a known non-negotiable among her students. “I don’t have an issue with cell phones in my class, because I make it very clear that I don’t want to see them, I don’t want to hear them, I don’t want to know about them,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, the only person who needs to be carrying a cell phone in class is someone on a transplant list.”

Following an initial warning, the teacher said, if the student doesn’t put the cell phone away, she takes it away until the end of the week, a consequence she said she has enforced only four times. Despite her strict rules, she said, she has never had a parent complain. “They understand that we are helping them understand how to behave appropriately,” she said.  “They wouldn’t text at church, or at the workplace.  Why should they be allowed to text in a classroom?”

One Tech parent agreed that the school should do whatever it takes to make sure students stay focused on their work rather than their cell phone screens. “Im not sending my child here so that she can goof around,” said Maria Garcia, as she waited to pick up her daughter, a freshman. “If the teachers need to take her phone away to make sure that happens, then so be it.”

Cell phone misuse at nearby Claremont Middle School seems to be a far cry from the problems at Tech. Though the Claremont students are younger than those at Tech, most have cell phones that they bring to school every day. But many teachers gathered during the school’s lunch break Wednesday agreed that Claremont’s official and stringent policy towards cell phones in class has helped curb any trouble. “It’s simple,” said one teacher, who also declined to be named. “If I see a phone, it gets taken to the office, and the parent has to pick it up at the end of the day.”

Terri Keith, the mother of Claremont 6th grader Kayla, said she considers it critical that her daughter have a cell phone in case of emergencies, but stressed the importance of responsible phone behavior. “She knows not to take it out in class.” Keith said. “She knows that she should only be using it for safety reasons. And it’s working.”

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Image: Edgar Sanchez, 15, and Emily Ramirez, 15 bring their cell phones to school with them every day.


  1. Clay Boggess on November 18, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Students should be allowed to have their cell phones in their possession; however they need to be put away and turned off while in class. The teacher should be able to enforce consequences if classroom rules are violated. Students need to have access to cell phones in the event that they need to contact family for whatever reason.

  2. peter on November 18, 2010 at 11:21 am

    At Westlake, we have what sounds like the same policy as Claremont (if we see or hear a phone it is taken until a parent can come). It’s amazing how much this avoids the problems I read about. Hopefully, since Tech’s two biggest feeder schools are doing this, Tech will have some success as well.
    My real concern with cellphones, however, is MUCH more serious than cheating… very frequently, when kids are in conflict, the first thing said is “I’ll call my (friend, cousin, etc) up here.” Unfortunately, most of us really do know someone who is ignorant enough to come up to a school to fight someone because of what they hear a kid says. Then we have real problems.
    And while I understand parents’ needs to have kids be in possession of cell phones, when push come to shove in an emergency situation, I will always trust the trained adults over the teenagers. No amount of cell phones would have helped avert Columbine.

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