New York City Is Ending Its Ban on Cell Phones in Schools

The prohibition of student mobile devices has been enforced unequally across the Big Apple.

(Photo: Maskot/Getty Images)

Oct 13, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio plans to make good on one of his campaign promises—one that will surely make some Gotham teens his biggest fans. No, not the pledge to lessen wealth inequality in the city. (Poor doors are still in full effect.) Instead, the mayor plans to bring an end to another inequity that has plagued the Big Apple’s public schools in recent years: the ban on cell phones on campus.

The mobile device prohibition is supposed to be applied to all New York City schools, but it’s only being enforced at 88 locations that have metal detectors. Those detectors are able to catch the presence of cell phones in a teen’s backpack. Meanwhile, at the schools without the detectors, as long as a device doesn’t ring in class or a student doesn’t try to text, teachers have been turning a blind eye to phones. De Blasio admitted last month that his son, who is a senior at metal-detector-free Brooklyn Technical High School, regularly takes his phone to school.

According to a 2013 report from the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of teens own cell phones and 37 percent of them have smartphones. Students attending schools with metal detectors haven’t wanted to leave their devices at home—their parents understandably want to get in touch with them at the end of the school day and make sure they made it home or to an after-school job. That’s created a cottage phone-storage industry outside the 88 metal-detector campuses.

The way it works is similar to a coat check at a club: A truck or van parks outside a middle or high school, and a student swaps his or her phone for a ticket. But those tickets aren't free. To store their phones, kids attending one of those 88 schools have had to pony up some cash for the storage fee.

“This costs a dollar every day, and it’s a pain to get in that line just so I can get my phone back so I can go home,” 16-year-old Adam Scully, a student at Washington Irving High School, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

That amount might not seem like much, but with 180 days in every school year, over a student’s high school career it adds up to $720. That’s money their peers attending campuses with a wink-and-a-nod approach to cell phones haven’t had to pay.

If a kid tries to sneak a phone past the metal detector, the hammer of the New York City Department of Education’s Discipline Code comes down. The punishment for bringing a phone on campus could be anything from a stern talking-to from an administrator to a suspension.

School districts began banning mobile devices because of educators’ concerns that students would spend all their time texting their friends or using the devices to cheat in class or play games. Some educators have also supported mobile device bans over worries that kids carrying pricey smartphones would be targeted by thieves while walking to and from school.

According to the school discipline policy at I.S. 285 in Brooklyn, the "safety and security of our students are our utmost concern. It is for this reason that we are urgently requesting that cell phones and other electronic devices be left at home." The policy goes on to state that "[phones] are a distraction and pose a safety hazard to our school community. The thefts of cell phones and other electronic devices have become a citywide epidemic."

A cell phone storage van run by a company called Pure Loyalty was robbed in 2012, prompting angry parents and students to demand an end to the ban.

Along with enabling parents to more easily stay in touch with their kids, mobile devices can be used for academics, many educators have found.

Depending on the number of tablets or computers on campus—usually there isn’t enough hardware for everyone—a student might use his or her phone to conduct research for an assignment. At schools with terrible Internet connections, a student’s phone might be the only way for him or her to get online to complete classwork. Some teachers have even found success incorporating social media into the classroom, allowing shy students to tweet answers instead of raising their hands.

New York City public schools are under mayoral control, so ending the ban is in de Blasio’s power. Education officials are reportedly crafting a new device policy. So while there’s no specific date when all of the city’s students will be able to take their devices to class, mobile equality is on its way.