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Learning Gate Community School bans cell phones on campus

LUTZ — Asking nicely didn't work, so one well-regarded Hillsborough County charter school has banned students from carrying cell phones on campus.

Text-messaging and calls during class had "gotten out of control," the Learning Gate Community School said in a letter to parents this week.

And it wasn't just the kids.

"A lot of these phone calls and text messages are coming in from the parents," assistant principal Sean Craven said Friday.

Learning Gate's ban goes well beyond policies at public schools around Tampa Bay. It is more similar to bans enacted in recent years in Milwaukee and New York City.

Since 2004, Florida law has allowed students to carry cell phones, but permits school boards to regulate their use. For example, they can require students to leave phones in their lockers.

Around Tampa Bay, students generally can carry phones, but must have them turned off and tucked out of sight during school.

Charter schools like Learning Gate are public schools, but they operate under a contract with the School Board that allows them more operating flexibility. They can have a stricter policy on things like cell phones, said Hillsborough schools spokeswoman Linda Cobbe.

At Learning Gate, Craven said he tried to explain to parents that calls and text messages into the classroom distract not only their own child, but also others.

It didn't work.

So now students who need a cell phone for use after school — say, to call a parent about pickup — must check it in at the front office in the morning. They can get it back at the end of the day.

So far, at least 30 students are doing that.

"Yesterday we actually had an entire bucketful," Craven said. "Obviously, we know there are more that are out there."

Learning Gate has about 525 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Administrators had talked about the problem for several months and braced themselves for a backlash after announcing it Wednesday.

Two days in, however, they had received no complaints, Craven said.

"I am 100 percent-plus behind it," said Suzin Carr, whose son, Chandler, is in the third grade and, no, doesn't have a cell phone. "It is beyond disruptive in classrooms to have children e?mailing their friends and looking up the weather and texting each other."

Carr said she bumped into another Learning Gate mom after school Monday at Publix, and they started talking about kids having cell phones.

Parents should make a silent pact, Carr's friend told her. No cell phones until they're in their early teens.

But that's not the case.

"In second grade, there was a child who had one," Carr said. "Many of his friends have cell phones at this point."

Neither of Andrew McAlister's children at Learning Gate have cell phones, and the University of Tampa assistant professor of communications knows how disruptive they can be.

During a brief stint teaching at Freedom High School in New Tampa, "the cell phone thing was just out of control," he said.

"The art of texting without anybody being able to see you is very well developed," he said. "If you take the phones away as you should be doing, you aren't going to be doing anything else in class."

Officially, at least, that's the policy. Hillsborough County's student handbook says, "We see it, we take it," with a drawing of a big X over a cell phone. (Other things similarly X'ed out are drugs and a revolver.)

During FCAT testing, the rule is stricter, and it comes from the state: No cell phones within reach, Cobbe said. The test scores of more than two dozen Hernando County students were invalidated last year because they had cell phones and electronic devices with them during FCAT testing.

At Learning Gate, administrators said it just got too disruptive to have the phones going off in the classroom.

They caused other problems, too. Sometimes kids who didn't feel well would ask to go to the rest room, call home from there and ask a parent to pick them up. The parent would call the school, but the front office wouldn't know anything about the kid feeling sick.

It's confusing and unnecessary, Craven said.

"As a child, I somehow got through the school system okay without a cell phone," the 36-year-old administrator said. "Any time I had a problem, I knew I could go to the front office."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Richard Danielson can be reached at or (813) 269-5311.

Cell phones
at school

Hillsborough County: Don't turn them on or use them, and keep them out of sight during school.

Pinellas County: Turn them off and keep them concealed while school is in session, on buses and at school-sponsored activities.

Pasco County: Don't turn them on or use them on campus, on the bus or at any school function without explicit approval from a school official.

Hernando County: Cell phones can't be used in school buildings or on the bus and may not disrupt school functions. In elementary and middle schools, devices can't be turned on or used at any time during the school day. In high school, they can be on only before the first bell and at the end of school.

Sources: Codes of student conduct for each public school district.

Learning Gate Community School bans cell phones on campus 02/20/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 20, 2009 11:54pm]
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