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What kids, teachers are saying

Cell phone use jangles Hillsborough schools

TAMPA — Between classes, Durant High's Haley Quinzi sneaks a peek at the blinking message light on her cell phone.

Valencia Solomon says she texts the entire time she walks between classes at Tampa Bay Technical High.

Michael Radder wonders why he was reprimanded by a substitute at Bloomingdale High for using a cell phone, when it was a teacher calling him.

These student government leaders don't hide the obvious: They're breaking the rules. Hills­borough County students are supposed to keep cell phones off — not on silent or vibrate — during school hours.

Not that anyone seems to be following the policy.

"It doesn't take away from my schoolwork. I can text and I don't miss anything," said Quinzi, a junior who really doesn't understand why cell phones should be banned during lunch.

She acknowledged that "in class we probably shouldn't be texting."

School officials held a forum recently at which they asked student leaders to address a growing problem: What should be done about the rampant cell phone use in Hillsborough schools. The adults present might not have been the best role models. School Board chairwoman Jennifer Faliero admitted to using her cell phone during the meeting, too.

"I almost want teachers to say when they enter the classroom: 'Turn off your cell phones, or I will take them away,' " said Faliero, who would consider more leniency outside of class. "We do it in the real world."

It may not be so easy. Cell phones have become as central to campus life as jeans and backpacks. Yet the palm-sized obsession, which may come to define "Generation Text," is creating more than a distraction in class.

Cell phones were blamed for exacerbating a recent spate of fights at Freedom High by spreading the word at lightning speed. School officials say students use them to snap inappropriate photos of classmates. Concern about cheating on tests is ever present.

"Cell phones are no longer just cell phones. They're videocameras. They're tape recorders. They're everything but a cell phone," said Lewis Brinson, Hills­borough's assistant superintendent for administration. "We can't allow students to abuse it."

With current policies clearly not working, Brinson is looking for alternatives. He would like to propose a new policy for next school year.

He initially looked to student government leaders for ideas. Their suggestions include a proposal to put a basket on every student's desk for cell phones. That would keep the phones out in the open. And instructors wouldn't have to confiscate the expensive devices, a sore spot for parents when they are lost or stolen in the process.

"We know it's there, so why bother hiding it?" said Jarrod Barefoot, a Newsome High senior who presented the idea for a group of students.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb was impressed with the ideas, but worries that the baskets could create more work for teachers. She has been asking students for other ideas.

"The kids kind of look at me and smile and laugh," Edgecomb said. "What they're saying to me — and teachers have admitted it, too — is that if the phone rings, they feel compelled to answer it."

Hillsborough could try an approach like Pinellas schools, where students are expected to keep cell phones off and out of sight during the school day unless an administrator gives them permission otherwise.

At Palm Harbor University High, for example, students are allowed to use cell phones before or after school and during lunch.

Other solutions may come forward Monday when a committee of Hillsborough students, teachers and principals meets to discuss policies governing cell phones. But don't expect school officials to throw up their hands and give up on regulating them.

As a parent, Brinson, the assistant superintendent, knows perfectly well that students would like unlimited freedom to use their cell phones during school hours. And he isn't swayed.

"Not during instructional time. Our focus during that particular time is getting them ready for their future," he said. "They don't need any more practice on how to use the cell phone. They've got that down."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Cell phone use jangles Hillsborough schools 04/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 2:45pm]
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