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Cell Phone Ban; Special Ed in Middle Schools
by Deborah Apsel and Vanessa Witenko
Cell phones are just about everywhere in New York City -- but they are banned in New York City public schools. Some parents say this puts their children in danger and, so parents at Manhattan Hunter Science High School, a new school in the Martin Luther King Jr. High School building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, have mounted a campaign to allow students to carry cell phones to school.
Many city parents say they rely on cell phones to communicate with their kids during the day -- to make sure they arrive at school safely, or to keep track of their whereabouts as they head to an after-school activity across town. "Everybody has a cell phone," says Susan Carr, the parent of a ninth grader and a PTA member involved in the campaign to get the cell phone rule reversed. "It's an outdated rule."
Eighty-five percent of Inside School readers who responded to a recent poll on cell phones said they oppose the ban on student cell phones. More than 75 percent of the 774 respondents said children should be allowed to carry cell phones as long as they are turned off during the school day, while another 10 percent said that individual principals should be allowed to decide, and 14 percent supported the ban. While the Insideschools poll is not scientific, it does indicate that many readers believe feel strongly that the current policy is flawed.
Chancellor Joel Klein has told the parents he will review the policy for next September, but Mayor Michael Bloomberg has suggested the ban should stand. .
Officially, the chancellor's regulations bar student cell phones in all city schools, though exceptions can be made for kids with medical problems. In reality, many city schools have a "don't ask, don't tell" policy when it comes to cell phones -- kids turn them off and leave them in their backpacks, out of the sight of school officials and teachers.
But students in schools where there are metal detectors do not have this option. At Manhattan Hunter Science High School, cell phones automatically set off the detectors as kids enter the building, and security guards confiscate the phones. Parents must go to the school in person in order to retrieve confiscated cell phones.
Carr, along with other members of the Parent's Association at Manhattan Hunter Science argue that the cell phone ban is unfair since students in metal-detector schools are the only ones who must abide by the rule. "LaGuardia High School is right across the street, and those kids can carry cell phones in their backpacks," says Carr. LaGuardia, unlike the Martin Luther King building, does not have a metal detector. Both LaGuardia and Manhattan Hunter Science have a good number of "commuter" students -- kids who travel considerable distances on public transportation to get to and from school.
While the cell phone ban frustrates many students and parents, some principals say allowing cell phones can create safety issues. One principal of a Brooklyn alternative high school said that cell phones in the building would make it far too easy for students to contact other youngsters outside the school. Students could -- and would -- use cell phones for gang activity or selling drugs, she said.
Before Klein's decision to review the policy, the Department of Education had maintained that the cell phone rule was non-negotiable. "Cell phones are banned in all city schools," said Keith Kalb, a spokesman for the Department of Education. "They are a distraction, they can be used for cheating, and they create criminal activity because children get them stolen."
Plus, says Kalb, kids and parents communicated just fine before there were cell phones. "Did you go to high school?" asks Kalb. "I went to high school. And we communicated fine without cell phones.”
But in a post-September 11 New York City, many parents say they worry about being able to get in touch with their kids in the case of an emergency. Carr, the Manhattan Hunter Science parent, says there are fewer functioning payphones on the street than there used to be. She added that when her two older children, now in their 30s, were in school, she had no way to contact them and often worried about their well being. "I had many an anxious night when they were late and I didn't know where they were," she said. "I no longer have to endure that. Why should I?"
Improving Special Education in Middle School
Mellen O'Keefe worried what would happen to her daughter Juliet, when she left the elementary school. The girl, who has dyslexia, had been thriving at The Children's School in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, where children with disabilities study alongside their peers, and every class has two teachers, one of whom is certified in special education.
But O'Keefe saw few opportunities for her daughter in middle school, where disabled children tend to be assigned to separate classes. "I was just appalled by what I saw," said O'Keefe.
So O’Keefe and three other lobbied education officials to add team-teaching classes for special education in District 15 middle schools. In fall 2005, New Voices Middle School, the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, Sunset Park Prep Academy, Upper Carroll Middle School, and MS 27 will add Collaborative Team Teaching classes, which mix children with disabilities and general education students in the same class with two teachers, one certified in special education, regional officials have announced. (MS 88, New Horizons, and MS 51 already have such classes.)
As part of their efforts, he four women visited more than 20 schools in six districts and private schools and They saw noteworthy programs that they wanted to. The mothers had 10 specific requests, including more team teaching classes and better descriptions of special education programs in the regional middle school book.
Steve Rosen, director of special education for Region 8, credits the mothers with making good suggestions, but says the district planned to expand team-teaching classes anyway.
But Alyce Barr, principal of the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, said she has been asking for the classes since her school opened four years ago. She credits the vocal group of parents with helping to bring the classes to her school.
Opening more team-teaching classes is just a first step. Other long-established middle school team-teaching classes in the district have been unsuccessful. Still, said Archibald, "I'm very happy so far," said Archibald.
For other parents looking for change in the schools, O’Keefe recommends, “You have to be vigilant, educate yourself, and not be intimidated."
This topic page has been adapted from articles that originally appeared on Insideschools.org www.insideschools.org, an independent guide to New York City public schools sponsored by Advocates for Children www.advocatesforchildren.org.
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