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Schools' Cell Phone Ban May End

Education: Lawmakers weigh two measures to allow students to carry the mobile devices on campus.

February 08, 2002|JOE MATHEWS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some California students would be allowed to carry mobile phones, now banned on public school campuses, under two bills making their way through the state Legislature.

Both bills would allow school boards to set policies on use of cellular phones. Under current law, passed in a 1988 effort to limit drug sales, the state forbids the possession of any electronic signaling device on campus.

But as any visitor to a high school campus soon notices, students routinely ignore that law. Parents often provide the phones to keep tabs on their children. Many administrators and teachers say cellular phones are so common that they have stopped enforcing the ban.

The prospect of legislative action comes after a public campaign by the principal and students of Monroe High School in North Hills to reverse the ban. The bills also appear to be a byproduct of the Sept. 11 attacks, when cellular phones allowed people on hijacked airplanes and in the World Trade Center to contact authorities and loved ones before they died.

"Most of the young people who are going to school today are carrying cell phones on them or in their backpacks," said Assemblywoman Carol Liu, a La Canada Flintridge Democrat, the sponsor of one of the bills. "Times have changed, and many parents want their children to have phones. This bill acknowledges that fact."

Liu's bill passed the Assembly 73 to 0 last week. If it or a similar bill introduced last month by Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) becomes law, California would join Kentucky, Oklahoma and Maryland in backing away from cellular phone bans. School boards in several other states--where local policies rather than state law have enforced prohibitions--have reversed themselves and are permitting cellular phone use.

Legislators say a change in the California law is likely. Former supporters of the ban, including teachers unions and child welfare advocates, have raised no objections.

In their details, the two California bills take different tacks. Liu's proposal would keep the ban but would allow school boards to opt out of the prohibition. It also would mandate that cellular phones remain off during school hours and be used only for "purposes related to protecting the health and safety of a pupil, district, employee or other person on campus."

The Senate bill goes further. It would strip the ban out of the state code and give school boards authority to regulate mobile phones "to the extent necessary to prevent the disruption of school instruction or activities."

The Senate bill was introduced two weeks ago and will probably be debated in early spring.

Students and administrators at Monroe High have campaigned for lifting the ban since fall. And Liu and Figueroa say appeals from other schools prompted them to introduce legislation.

A leadership class at Logan High School in Union City had urged Figueroa to allow cellular phones. Liu was lobbied by the La Canada school board president.

On Sept. 11, local law enforcement urged the evacuation of La Canada High School because of its proximity to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which was feared to be a target of a terrorist attack. Students' cellular phones were essential to conducting an evacuation of all 1,200 students in half an hour, administrators said. But they worried that they were breaking state law.

"In an emergency our paramount objective is to ensure our students' safety," La Canada board President Virginia Dalbeck said in a statement. "The law should give local boards the flexibility to protect students as we see fit."

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