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Jewish World Review Dec. 7, 2001 / 22 Kislev, 5762

John H. Fund

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Let our students keep
their cell phones -- WE'VE heard so much about how civil liberties are going to be restricted in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, it's nice to know that in one small area freedom is being expanded because of public pressure. Parents and kids should both be pleased that many states are repealing bans on cell phones in school, making it easier for them to reach each other in an emergency.

A ban on cell phones, beepers and pagers in schools made some sense in the mid-1980s when they were imposed. The technology that powered them was in its infancy and the devices were rare and costly. "The only kids who could afford them were selling dope," says Illinois State Rep. Mary Flowers, who led her state in banning the devices in 1986 but now wants to repeal her own law. But in 1999, students and teachers at Columbine High School used cell phones to contact police about the shootings there. Colorado was one of the few states that didn't ban cell phones from schools.

Then on Sept. 11, people all over the country felt an urgent need to contact each other after the World Trade Center and Pentagon bombings. No one knew if the terrorists weren't trying to hit other targets in other cities. "Do you know what it's like as a mother to hear a busy signal when you're trying to find your child?" asks Rep. Flowers.

In the wake of the terror attack, New York City Schools Chancellor Howard Levy ended the ban on cell phones this week. Oklahoma, Missouri and Maryland have also repealed their bans, with the understanding that schools can and should bar them from being left on in class. Maryland's law was particularly ridiculous-kids faced jail time if caught with a "communications device."

That still leaves most states with the ban in place, including the nation's largest, California. The law there was put into effect in 1986, after a police survey found that 51 out of 81 schools reported that some students were using phones to sell drugs.

No doubt that will be true, but keeping honest students from having a cell phone won't prevent much trafficking. The law is rarely enforced in California, with many schools operating a "don't ask, don't tell" policy that allows the students to use phones so long as they aren't directly in sight of administrators or teachers and not in class. Drugs are certainly a problem, but driving new technology underground isn't the answer to social problems. If it was we'd ban students from driving cars and having computers.

Cell phones and pagers helped comfort millions of people on Sept. 11, and it's time for states to drop this unenforceable law.

Comment on JWR contributor John H. Fund's column by clicking here.


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©2001, John H. Fund