Cell phone ban lifted, THHS unaffected

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DESPITE MAYOR Bill de Blasio’s recent decision to lift the Bloomberg-era ban on cell phones in New York City public schools, Townsend Harris’s cell phone policy will remain the same. Though all public school students are now allowed to bring cell phones to school, when and where on school grounds students can use cell phones are left for the principals and school leadership teams to decide for their individual schools. Thus, it was decided that THHS’s cell phone policy will remain unchanged, though an official policy will be formed by the School Leadership Team (SLT) before March 2.

“[The cell phone ban] was really lifted for those schools that have metal detectors and scanners,” said Principal Anthony Barbetta. “They were the ones that could detect phones on students. We obviously don’t search students for phones. If we see a phone out [without permission] we will confiscate it. That most likely will remain.”

The option of allowing cell phones in designated areas of the school throughout the day was available to principles, but Mr. Barbetta said that because students have always brought their phones to THHS without getting distracted, he sees no reason for change.

“If you allow students to be on their phones [during lunch and frees] it can change the culture of the building, things of that nature,” he explained. “The mayor, the chancellor, their purpose is for safety…and that’s a legitimate concern. A student can always use any office phone if they ever have an emergency.”

He added that he’s spoken with colleagues and other principals, who feel similarly.

Dean Robin Figelman agreed, saying, “It’s a big distraction. Why does a high school student need to be on their phone texting or calling people in the middle of the day?”

She added that allowing students to take out cell phones during lunch and free bands would “create chaos,” as students might take pictures of tests and inappropriately use the Internet. She also feels that allowing students to use phones during lunch and free bands might start “opening doors” for students to use them whenever they wish, including in classrooms.

“It’ll be second nature and they’ll flip [their cell phones] out whenever they want,” she said.

“It’s not the kids who use, it’s the kids who abuse the privilege that we’re more worried about,” said Senior Advisor Maria Assante. “So it kind of has to be a blanket policy for everybody and I think in that respect it keeps everybody on a level playing field.”

Some students oppose this decision and feel that using phones in school is no different from using other forms of technology during the day.

“Many of us can do the same thing on computers and iPads as we can with phones, so…what’s the point of banning [phones] if you can do the same thing [on laptops]?” said senior Igor Portnoy.

Others feel that the cell phone policy should be loosened because cell phone use outside the classroom doesn’t affect, and can even enhance,  students’ education.

“We should be able to use our cell phones when it doesn’t act like a distraction because it can help us,” said junior Joyce Wong. “We have internet access, we can go online and search up things and take a picture of something and put it on our phones so we don’t have to carry our textbooks.”

Sophomore Arvinder Singh agreed that cell phone use should be acceptable during free bands and lunch because it doesn’t impact one’s education, adding that it would be the faculty’s responsibility to “enforce that and make sure [students] don’t take [phones] out during class.”

Seniors, who have multiple frees per day, would be most affected if cell phones were allowed outside the classroom. The majority of seniors said they would support such a change, though others feel it is unnecessary.

Senior Rahul Chandra feels that since tablets are allowed, cell phones should also be allowed since both are used for similar purposes. “Especially for seniors, it’s important that we are able to check e-mails, call colleges and scholarship programs, and most importantly, because we have nothing better to do,” he said

Though seniors are always allowed to call colleges on their cell phones with permission, senior Julia Jun feels that having a cell phone on hand would make it easy to get college e-mail updates.

Senior Romil Parikh feels that allowing cell phones during frees is simply more convenient.

“If we need to contact a family member or friend for something important, it is far more expedient to be able to use a phone freely during free bands, rather than ask a teacher present if you can,” she said.

“I don’t see it as a nuisance to teachers or other students, as long as we keep it to ourselves,” said senior Stanley Li. “I think the use of our cell phones is irrelevant to how much we pay attention in class.”

However, senior Bisma Sekhery feels otherwise.

“I agree that [students] should not be allowed to take cell phones out during frees because people cheat,” she said. “They give other people answers to the same test.”

“I had a bad experience when someone took a picture of me and it wasn’t even with their cell phone, it was their laptop,” she added. Thus, she feels that if cell phones were allowed, such incidents would be more likely.

Senior  Nicholas Cheng feels that allowing seniors to use cell phones during frees is simply  unnecessary.

“There’s no real purpose to use your phones during school; all your friends are in the building so who would you call?” he said.

Ms. Assante understands the decision to not extend cell phone use to lunch and frees, but also wouldn’t mind giving students more freedom. She added that in general, when you allow people to do something, they’ll be less likely to abuse the privilege.

“I would say yes, [allowing students to use cell phones during frees and lunch] would be the next progressive step, but Mr. Barbetta is not ready to take that step just yet,” she said.

“Would I like to see a little bit of the policy loosened? I think it would make you guys a little happier and it might make us a little less frustrated, but I think that’s down the road,” she added. “Let’s see where that takes us.”

“For years, students at Townsend have managed to survive without dangling their phones out in the open during the school day, so I’m sure the current and future students will be able to do the same,” said SLT representative and senior Amanda Lee.  “I think that the policy will change when there is a demand and necessity for it to.”

Chancellor Farina also felt lifting the ban would pave the way for teachers to educationally use cell phones in the classroom. Mr. Barbetta is excited about these possibilities, adding that he’s already seen this happening with teachers’ permission and feels that students at THHS are mature enough to use cell phones positively in the classroom.

Science teacher Shi Bing Shen also sees benefits in allowing students to use cell phones for educational purposes in class.

“I do allow kids to use their phone to take pictures in the lab, if they want to put a picture in their data, but that will be pretty much supervised,” she explained. “Once you took that picture, that phone has got to go away…So I’m OK as long as it’s solely educational.”

English teacher Jessica Stillman, who has three classes that use Chromebooks, has allowed cell phone use in the classroom in the past for research and polling.

She has used a phone app called “Class Dojo,” which acts as a running record of class participation during discussions and is “more simple to use on [her] cellphone than on the chromebook.”

“At THHS, I think cell phone use would be very beneficial,” said Ms. Stillman. “You can do things like polling, you could do things like research on cell phones now, and I think it can be useful.”

While English teacher Katherine Yan agrees that cell phones can be a useful classroom resource, she worries that using them for education in classrooms might make students feel uncomfortable if they don’t have smartphones and give them opportunities for distraction.

Mayor de Blasio lifted the ban so that parents and kids could contact each other right before and after school or in case of an emergency. In schools with metal detectors, students often had to store their cell phones in trucks during the school day.

“So a lot of businesses, even box trucks would come and kids would drop off their phones, get a ticket, and they would leave their phones on that truck all day,” said Ms. Assante. “So somebody was very enterprising and made money off of kids who go to a school where screening and x-ray machines are necessary.”

Principles of these schools will work with parents and faculty to establish individual cell phone policies.

“For the most part, I’m for [the ban lift] in the world we live in today,” said Mr. Barbetta. “The fact that most students in high school no longer attend a neighborhood school and they’re traveling sometimes two hours to get to school and home, [in the] late fall, early winter, it’s dark. So I definitely get the safety issue.”

However, there is  controversy over the ban lift in the context of certain public schools with scanners and metal detectors.

“There are things like kids getting robbed within school or walking out of school because somebody else knows they have an iPhone 6 in their pocket,” said Ms. Stillman, who used to work at a high school with metal detectors.  “It can create a huge safety issue outside of the classroom as well. In the majority of the city, I do think [the ban lift] is going to be a huge issue and I know a lot of teachers who are very upset about that.”