Live the Questions

Words of Torah, funny anecdotes about my students, rants about education policy, and observations on politics, progressive Judaism, activism, and culture will all make appearances on this blog. Each post will end with a question for the reader; please respond if you feel moved.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Unannounced cellphone confiscation in schools and other nonsensical initiatives that keep us from focusing on real educational reform

Since the NYC Department of Education announced that the School Safety Division of the NYPD would be making surprise visits to various schools to scan students for cell phones and other electronic devices, public school parents have been bemoaning the terrible fate of their children who will quite possibly have their precious cell phones confiscated. While I am sympathetic to the parents' desires to keep their children safe by providing a means of ready communication, I think that this current initiative is misguided for totally different reasons. Here they are:

1. Scanning (requiring students to go through metal detectors before they enter school in the morning) is an extremely dehumanizing process. In schools with severe disciplinary issues, scanning may be warranted in order to protect students from guns, knives, blades, etc. However, this initiative would provide for unannounced scanning at relatively safe schools for the express purpose NOT of discovering weapons but of confiscating electronic equipment.

For two years, I taught at a high school where students went through metal detectors before they entered the building each day. Scanning was justified at this school; during my two years, one student was caught with a gun, one with a taser (stun gun) and many with knives or utility blades. However, this does not change the fact that students resented scanning and thus hated their first 3-5 minutes in school every morning. They felt that scanning reflected a lack of trust and created an expectation of violence; as a student named Arthur said to me, "They already treat us like criminals, so why shouldn't we act like criminals?"

Being the 1st period teacher is tough when the experience that students have right before your class is waiting in line to be herded like cattle through roped-off lanes in order to take off boots, belts, backpacks, and jewlery and be interrogated if they forgot to remove some metal article from their clothing. Think of how annoyed you get in the airport. Would you be able to learn constructively right after that? Every day?

This is to say nothing of the students' right to privacy; both from a legal standpoint and from a psychological standpoint, teens need to feel secure and autonomous.

Why force students to go through scanning when it is not justified?

2. Empty initiatives like this that have nothing to do with the key issues in education-- quality of instruction, class size, resources available in schools, pushing for innovative and effective curriculum, reform of the nasty Department of Ed bureacracy, or school funding-- distract public attention from the real problems in education.

I certainly understand why cell phones in the classroom are bad; don't get me wrong. I've seen kids cheat with cellphones, text message each other in class, and even (only once-- the student wouldn't want to incur my wrath that way again) had a student take a phone call in the middle of class. There's no question that cellphones don't belong in the classroom. However, expending millions (and believe me, this entire campaign of moving metal detectors from school to school and using a cadre of NYPD officers will cost millions) to confiscate cellphones does not seem like a good use of our resources.

3. This is removing autonomous decision-making power from individual schools. The official DOE policy is that cell phones and electronic devices are banned in schools. However, up until now, if individual schools wanted to quietly look the other way or enforce different versions of cellphone bans, the DOE did not impose its absolute ban. In modifying the cell phone rules to fit the school community and the needs of parents and students, schools responded to their circumstances and constituencies. Again, if we were dealing with a crucial issue, I would understand the DOE's insistence on lockstep compliance. Here, I just see it as an unwelcome intrusion.


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