Talking Points 

A recent bill to allow cell phones back in schools is the work of high-school lobbyists.

In the online fact sheet for a bill that would lift statewide restrictions on cell phones and pagers in public schools, the first argument of the bill's author, state senator Liz Figueroa, is the Columbine massacre of 1999. "In an emergency, a cell phone will often be the closest phone to use to call 911," says the Democrat's Web site. "Students with cell phones made the first and most helpful reports at Columbine High School, alerting law enforcement to the exact location of their attackers."

Ah, the classic "keep our children safe" argument -- how like a politician. Even the kids from the leadership class at Union City's James Logan High School, whom Figueroa enlisted as lobbyists for her pending bill, don't completely buy that argument -- not that they didn't make use of it.

The fact is that SB 1253, which breezed through the state Senate in April on a 38-1 vote, isn't about safety, but rather about changing times and modern conveniences. Indeed, the bill came about because a local administrator was tired of confiscating the darn things.

One of the duties of Don Montoya, principal and thus disciplinarian at Logan High School, is to snatch gadgets such as cell phones and pagers that he might spy in the paws of any of his 4,200 students. Carrying these items in school, after all, is still a violation of state law.

The current statute banning wireless gizmos on school campuses was added to the state Education Code in 1988, when cell phones were still the size of bricks, and paranoid pols and teachers bluntly assumed that any kid with a pager was up to no good -- and some were. The existing ban covers any electronic signaling device, even things like newer Palm Pilots, which had yet to be invented back then. Montoya, being surrounded by kids all the time, is relatively hip to what's hip, and he considers that law about as antiquated as a slide rule. "As I was out on campus taking cell phones away, it became more and more ridiculous," he says. "If my daughter were a student here, I would want her to have one."

Montoya sought out the opinion of Logan's leadership class, in which members of the student government plan school events. Not surprisingly, the kids agreed that the law was passé. From there, it wasn't hard for Montoya to recruit them as earnest lobbyists to bring the pressing issue to their state senator.

Last October, seniors Christine Start, Monica Esqueda, and Juan Pagán invited Figueroa to visit the leadership class and hear their proposal. She agreed to submit the bill, if the kids would rally support for it. They were about to get a civics lesson bar none. The students researched current law and examined the policies in other states. They also sought out regulations that allow students to use devices like Walkmans outside of class, and lifted language from these measures to bolster the new bill.

The students then hit the phones to lobby teachers' groups and superintendents of other districts, and finally made a trip to Sacramento to testify before the Senate Education Committee. Did they, too, invoke Columbine? Well, yes. After all, they're not completely naive about the political process. "We were careful not to make that our whole argument, because that was extreme," says Esqueda. "We wanted to show how cell phones would be used in an everyday sense."

If the legislation makes it through the Assembly and the governor signs it -- Figueroa believes both will happen -- the prohibitions would be lifted next January. The Assembly is scheduled to vote on the bill June 12.

Figueroa, of course, also has some less inflammatory arguments in favor of her bill. With two-income families the norm, cell phones just make sense as the way to connect busy parents and children, she says. The senator offers some examples: after-school activities could get canceled or change venues, nighttime dances and athletic games can run late, or parents can get stuck in traffic.

"The other thing," Esqueda says, "was that even though it was brought to our attention there are pay phones, a lot of pay phones are breaking down or being vandalized, and they're not being replaced."

Logan students aren't the only ones seeking to overturn the ban. GOP Assemblyman John Campbell introduced a similar bill in January after seniors from Irvine's Woodbridge High School approached him. A third bill, drafted by South Pasadena Democrat Carol Liu, passed the Assembly on January 30. Figueroa's legislation replaced the two Assembly bills, which Figueroa says did not seek to overturn the existing state law, though they would have allowed school districts to draft new policies.

California is just the latest state to rethink cell phones at school. Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan lawmakers are all contemplating bills this year. Kentucky, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Maryland recently repealed their bans. Maryland's law was one of the toughest: Students could have faced jail time for a second offense.

Since the twin towers fell, the New York City Board of Education has been reconsidering cell phones. But some Florida schools tightened their restrictions after schools in Florida and Texas reported an increase in anonymous bomb threats after 9/11. Many of those threats, it turned out, were made by students on wireless phones -- so much for the security argument.

When cell phones were first outlawed in California schools thirteen years ago, they were rare but notorious. "At that time, people who mostly used cell phones were people involved with drugs," Figueroa says. Now, of course, the phones are as ubiquitous as backpacks. Esqueda estimates that three-fourths of her classmates carry the gadgets. And often it's the parents, not the kids, who insist on them. "My mom was the one who said you have to have a phone," says Pagán. "She gave me one. I didn't ask. I had to take it. It's just safer -- if I plan to stay after school and what I'm doing is canceled, then I can call her rather than have me waiting for her."But some educators fear allowing students to have phones will cause distractions. Mike McGinnis, associate principal at Del Oro High School in Walnut Creek, predicts students will sneak off to the bathroom to make calls, or arrive in class tardy because they were chatting it up. "The biggest problem is they're going to be going off all the time," McGinnis says. "Obviously you've been to places where they have to tell the adults to turn them off before something starts and yet someone will leave it on. And I think with kids, it's a bigger problem. ... Phones are like status symbols, and they're going to use them.

"It's like giving them a box of candy and saying 'Don't eat it,' " adds the administrator.The Columbine argument doesn't convince him either. "Emergency is not an argument because we have phones here. The emergency people will get through to us, or us to them," he says.

At Logan, according to Montoya, Walkmans and Discmans present more of a disruption than cell phones. In fact, the week he sat down for an interview, he had confiscated only one. Christine Start, Logan's student body president, points out that most students already carry them and they rarely go off -- at least in her classes. "The whole time I've been at this school, it's only happened two or three times," she says.

Currently, the penalties for having a wireless at school vary from district to district and school to school. SB 1253, the Logan bill, would lift all restrictions and allow each local school district to apply its own regulations. Districts may continue to ban the phones, or allow them to be used outside of class time.

Most educators interviewed gave a cautious thumbs-up to the proposed change. The powerful California Teachers Association supports the bill -- surprisingly enough, since teachers are the first line of classroom discipline. "Certainly we concur with the right of parents to reach their children, as long as it's not a disruptive matter," says spokesman Mike Myslinkski, who adds that he's not aware of any widespread teacher complaints about phones causing classroom disruptions.

"We think it's a good thing," says Peggy Marshburn, communications director for the Contra Costa County Office of Education, before adding a caveat: "There's still the concern about controlling the chaos of ringing cell phones going off in class."

Then again, she says, everyone, not just students and teachers, has to deal with cell phone etiquette these days, whether it's in a restaurant or at the movies.

Or smack in the middle of a Shakespeare lecture.

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