Randi Weingarten, affidavit on behalf of United Federation of Teachers, Camella Price et al. v. New York City Board of Education et al., Supreme Court of the State of New York, October 18, 2006.
"Why hurt the thousands of parents and students who use the cell phones appropriately—only to and from school or in cases of emergency?"
Randi Weingarten, president of United Federation of Teachers (UFT), submitted an affidavit on behalf of her organization in a 2006 court case challenging a cell phone ban in New York City schools. This viewpoint is excerpted from that affidavit. While Weingarten concedes that cell phone use in schools can be disruptive, she asserts that a widespread ban is unnecessary. Instead, she suggests, each school should develop its own policy, which may require that cell phones be turned off in class but should allow their use before and after school and in case of emergency.
As you read, consider the following questions:
- How does Weingarten explain educators' unique role and responsibilities in the instruction of schoolchildren?
- The city administration compares cell phones to what dangerous instruments, according to a resolution cited in the viewpoint?
- On what basis did the Department of Education reject a plan to construct lockers where cell phones could be stored, according to the author?
The UFT [United Federation of Teachers] represents more than 100,000 teachers and other educators who work in the City of New York's public schools ("Educators"). I respectfully make this affidavit in support of the UFT's motion for leave to appear in this action as amicus curiae [friend of the court] and, in that capacity, to present this Court with the unique perspective that Educators have on the issues raised herein.
As discussed in more detail below, cell phones are a lifeline for many parents and children. Indeed, one need look no further than the September 11  terrorist attacks, this month's [October 2006] [Cory] Lidle plane tragedy1 or the Roosevelt Island tram incident [in which sixty-nine passengers were trapped for hours] to see their perceived importance in securing children's safety. At the same time, the use of cell phones inside classrooms and schools can be potentially disruptive and even dangerous. It is necessary, therefore, to find a balance that prohibits cell phone usage in school, but permits children to have them in traveling to and from school. Unlike most urban school systems that have crafted policies to achieve this balance, the [New York City] Department of Education (the "DOE") has instituted an outright ban on the possession of cell phones in schools. It has taken the position that, by doing so, it has facilitated the education of the "City's students in a safe and orderly environment in which teachers can devote their full energy to teaching...," [according to the] Affidavit of Rose Albanese-DePinto. ...
Not All Risky Items Can Be Banned
As the representative of teachers, the UFT is keenly aware that almost any item that a student could conceivably bring to school—including pens, pencils, and even paper—could potentially be used for mischief or harm. Yet, it would be counterproductive to ban every possible source of mischief from the educational environment. Instead, based on city-wide parameters that ban their use in schools, parents, teachers and administrators could work together to develop a school-by-school cell phone policy. If teachers, parents and students are involved in this school-by-school planning, all will have a stake in enforcing the rules that are agreed upon—enforcement that is necessary for any aspects of an effective discipline code.
Educators are skilled professionals that, inter alia [among other things], are initially responsible for the supervision of classrooms and the maintenance of discipline and safety therein. Accordingly, they have first-hand experience in what is necessary to create a sound educational environment and safe schools. It is Educators who must, in the first instance, deal with the whole array of concerns—from cheating to bullying to violence—that the DOE claims supports the cell phone ban. Because of the unique role that Educators play in the instruction of New York City's public school children, the UFT respectfully believes that its perspective will be of special assistance to the Court in this matter. ...
The UFT has developed a special expertise with respect to school safety.
Thus ... the UFT's Executive Board unanimously passed a resolution stating, in pertinent part:
Use of Cell Phones in Schools Resolution
Whereas, the City Administration has ordered that students be prohibited from carrying cell phones to schools comparing them to guns, knives, and box cutters; and
Whereas, in an era when students often commute to schools by public transportation, this ban on cell phones has raised serious concerns among parents for the safety of their children; and
Whereas, this Administration pays lip service to empowering administration and staff to maintain orderly schools, but does not trust them to deal with incidents of cell phone abuse; be it
Resolved, that in lieu of banning the possession of student cell phones outright, each school develops and enforces a policy prohibiting cell phone use by students in a school building including escalating penalties on students who violate the school policy; and be it further
Resolved, that this policy be written into the safety plan.
A Wholesale Ban Is Unnecessary
City Council Member Bill de Blasio—a parent of school-aged children himself—joined me at a May 8, 2006 press conference in urging the Mayor and Chancellor to allow students to bring their cell phones to school, but ban their use inside the building. Said Council Member de Blasio:
As a middle school parent, I know that cell phones are an important way for parents and students to communicate. ... While cell phones can cause legitimate problems inside school, this is about safety, too. I want to help school-age families and educators strike a balance that ensures parents are empowered to take responsibility for their children's welfare. ...
Such a balance is possible. Ostensibly, the purpose of the cell phone ban is to remove an item that "negatively impact[s] the learning environment"; is "a tool for cheating"; can be used for "taking and disseminating illicit photograph[s]"; makes it easier to "bully" others as well as eliminates a target for theft [see Respondents' Memorandum of Law in Support of Their Verified Answer ("Resp. Br."), DePinto Affidavit]. The UFT is keenly aware of the need to maintain discipline and order in classrooms and agrees that a ban on the use of cell phones in schools is necessary. This does not translate, however, into a rational basis for a wholesale prohibition on students bringing them into a school, which is tantamount to a ban on their possession. Far more narrow restrictions would achieve the DOE's stated purposes without endangering public school children's safety.
Ms. [Rose Albanese-]DePinto's affidavit provides a series of examples of how cell phones have been misused by individual students. In a school system of over 1,400 schools and 1.1 million students, while these examples provide a sound basis for a classroom prohibition, they do not provide the same for a wholesale ban on outright possession to and from schools. They serve instead to illustrate why empowering Educators and parents to develop an enforceable school-by-school cell phone policy is more appropriate. Indeed, in many schools, a policy requiring students to turn off their cell phones during class time or to keep their cell phones in their locker may be sufficient to prevent the overwhelming majority of instances of their misuse. Surely, a certain percentage of students can be expected to violate such a policy as they do the existing cell phone ban. In those situations, an outright ban on possession may be appropriate, but why hurt the thousands of parents and students who use the cell phones appropriately—only to and from school or in cases of emergency?
Consequences for Cheating and Crime
For example, without doubt a cell phone can be a tool for cheating and cheating is something we must crack down on. But does that mean we should ban any material that can be used for cheating—including pencils and pens? Because it is obviously impossible to learn in such an environment, the DOE, as with other aspects of the discipline code, must empower its staff to prevent cheating and impose consequences if cheating is discovered. Likewise, with respect to cell phones, the DOE must empower its staff and be willing to impose the consequences for a violation.
Similarly, cell phones may be the target of crime, but so too can almost anything of value. Indeed, the DOE does not ban from schools many other items that are worth a lot more money than cell phones. For example, sneakers in the style [du jour] can cost hundreds of dollars. Instead, it relies, as it must, on Educators, administrators and parents to provide a safe atmosphere for learning on a school-by-school basis.
A Proper Balance
The DOE argues that it declined to adopt a plan similar to Petitioners' proposal that it construct lockers so that students could check their phones as they enter a building because [as stated in the DePinto affidavit] "the significant financial resources needed to design and build the facilities and thereafter supervise and staff such an endeavor in 1,400 schools" are better spent elsewhere. This misses the point. Whereas the DOE makes a compelling case for why cell phones cannot be used in classes, there are many schools that could craft a policy that permits students to keep a cell phone on their person but require it [to] be turned off, allow students to keep a cell phone in a school locker, or develop some other plan that is appropriate for the individual school. Then, and only then, in the few schools where there are persistent violations would a discussion of an outright ban on possession be appropriate. This would maintain the balance of keeping classrooms free from disruption, yet permit students and parents [to] have the perceived security that a cell phone provides.
1. In October 2006, a plane carrying New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor crashed into a high-rise building in Manhattan, killing them both and creating chaos.