Like cigarettes, switchblades and gang attire, cell phones were once high on the list of items outlawed at California public schools.
School districts throughout the state now are clearing the way for students to carry--and, in limited circumstances, even use--cell phones or pagers on campus.
The policy switch comes a month after Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation allowing districts to permit the use of "electronic signaling devices" at schools, rescinding a ban adopted in 1988 when police and school officials feared that drug-dealing students were using pagers in their trade.
Today's proliferation of cell phones and their proven safety benefits, illustrated during deadly shootings at high schools in Littleton, Colo., and Santee, Calif., helped drive the policy change.
Today, school board members in Irvine and Corona will consider ending bans on cell phones and pagers, weighing common-sense benefits against the disruptions teachers may face when the devices start to ring and chirp in the classroom.
"I really see the policy as one that allows students to use cell phones when it is appropriate, especially before and after school," said Tony Ferruzzo, principal of Northwood High School in Irvine. "It's also very important to parents, and allows them to keep in touch with their kids."
Many other school districts around the state, including those in Los Angeles and Long Beach, are beginning to review the new law and have not yet proposed policy changes.
The proposal before the Irvine board would allow students to use cell phones, pagers and two-way radios on campus during lunch, during extracurricular activities, in an emergency or in any circumstance under which a doctor determines the device is essential to the student's health. At other times students would be required to turn the devices off.
"I don't see what the big deal is; everyone already has them," said Chris Lavery, 17, a senior at Irvine High School, who pulled one from a pocket of his baggy pants Monday during lunch. "When I'm at school, I just put it on silent mode. My folks bought it for me. I call them, and use it to call my friends after school."
After a recent car accident, Lavery used his phone to call his parents: "If I didn't have it, I'd have been in big trouble."
State lawmakers banned cell phones and pagers when the devices were still expensive and unusual, and when police felt they were primarily used by students selling drugs. Since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, however, states have started to revisit those blanket policies. In the past two years, Maryland and Kentucky have repealed bans.
"The world has changed; everybody has a cell phone," said state Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), who sponsored the legislation allowing the devices on campuses. "There are number of situations where having a cell phone has been a safety benefit."
Figueroa said students and staff at Columbine used cell phones to alert police and to contact their parents when they were trapped inside the school during the shooting.
The senator said the "common sense" legislation was first proposed to her by a leadership class at James Logan High School in Union City.
"They're already there.... It's something that a lot of districts ignored and students ignored. Parents wanted their kids to have cell phones to communicate before and after school," said Rick Pratt, assistant executive director of the California School Boards Assn., which lobbied for the policy change.
David Smoller, spokesman for the Capistrano Unified School District, in southern Orange County, said the superintendent's staff is proposing changes similar to those in Irvine.
In general, parents have strongly supported allowing cell phones on campus, said Thomas Pike, assistant superintendent for student services at the Corona-Norco Unified School District.
"There are the day-to-day issues of safety. Students can contact their parents to let them know they have to stay late," Pike said. "Allowing students to maintain contact with their families is an important issue to be considered."
Still, there are disadvantages. Along with the possibility that phones may ring during class, students also can use text messaging available on many cell phones and pagers to pass electronic notes in class.
"They do it right now, even though they're not even supposed to have cell phones," said Naomi Terrazas, 17, a senior at Irvine High School, who was using her cell phone to talk with her aunt after class on Monday.
School administrators realize that might be a problem, but said they will handle that the same way they handle improper use of cell phones now: They'll confiscate them.
At Northwood High in Irvine, students caught using a cell phone or pager on campus have it taken away, and it is returned at the end of the day, along with a note parents must sign. If a student violates the restriction a second time, the phone is confiscated and the parent must pick it up.
"Right now, as far as a phone ringing on campus, it just doesn't happen," said Ferruzzo, the principal.