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Cellphone Ban Is a Tale of Two City Schools

Thursday, October 27, 2011 - 06:53 AM

Hear the WNYC Radio coverage.

Students at the Thomas Jefferson High School campus in East New York, Brooklyn, are familiar with the small white truck with the yellow Smart Dock logo parked right across Pennsylvania Avenue. They line up twice a day to drop off and collect their cellphones from a window, where Willie Portis, 48, compared his job to running a coat check.

"They take the phone, put the ticket back and you know what phone they got, what ticket they got," he said one day after school as students crowded around him.

The chancellor's regulations explicitly ban cellphones and other electronic devices from school property. At schools with metal detectors, like Thomas Jefferson, students pay a price for obeying that rule because it is almost impossible for them to sneak their cellphones into the building.

But only 88 of the city's 1,200 school buildings have metal detectors, which were originally brought in to keep out weapons like guns and box cutters. That means that more than 90 percent of the city's schools have no real way to keep out the phones, and in those schools the ban is largely ignored.

WNYC radio reported about the way a mini-economy has developed around schools with metal detectors since the ban went into effect five years ago. Hear from those students, as well as from those in schools without metal detectors, who talk about how they carry phones in their book bags and text each other during class.

"I don’t really know anybody who doesn’t have a cellphone in school," said Lauren Levitt, 15, a junior at Forest Hills High School in Queens.

The students say they need their phones to check in with friends throughout the day. They use them when their teachers are not looking, mostly to send text messages, said Paul Page, 17. He said "full convos" would draw too much attention.

Nkeoma Onurogh, 16, added: "If you want to be a real boss, you can, like, answer a phone in class. But you would get in trouble, like real trouble."

The students said school deans would confiscate a phone for up to a week, and even longer for a second offense.

Amelia Arcamone-Makinano, an English teacher at Forest Hills High, said teachers and administrators were left to use their best judgment when it came to policing cellphone use. Her rule for cellphones in class is simple: "Keep it private, it stays private."

Ms. Arcamone-Makinano, a 23-year veteran, said the students usually listen when she tells them to put away their phones — although she recalled one girl who dyed her hair to match her headphones.

This report was informed in part by the Public Insight Network. To help us cover issues like this, visit the PIN on WNYC or text “WNYC” to 30644.

Yasmeen Khan, a WNYC producer, contributed reporting.

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