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Thursday, February 7, 2008

The cell phone arguments by Ellen Bilofsky

Beginning last Thursday, when Justice Shirley Kornreich concluded that that the administration had illegally circumvented laws requiring public review when they tore up Randalls Island to create fields for private schools, then Tuesday, when judges criticized the manner in which Debbie Almontaser was fired from her job as principal of the Khalil Gibran school, and yesterday, when the parent lawsuit against the ban on cell phones was argued before the Appellate branch, the Mayor and Joel Klein have had a really bad week in court.

See this from NY Times article about the cell phone arguments:

One justice, David B. Saxe, remarked that if the chancellor, Joel I. Klein, had been more directly accountable to parents — instead of the mayor — he would probably be out of a job by now.

“I suspect that in a smaller school district, if the school superintendent tried such a ban, they’d probably fire the whole school board,” Justice Saxe said. But, he added, parents “can’t easily fire the chancellor.”

See below observations from Ellen Bilofsky, one of the parent plaintiffs in the lawsuit:

Oral arguments in the appeal of the cell phone lawsuit (Price v. New York City Board of Education) left parents and lawyers feeling hopeful that the five-judge state appeals panel might reverse the negative ruling in the suit to overturn the ban on possession of phones in schools. Although the five-judge panel lobbed some hostile questions at our lawyers, in the end they seemed to "get it": that banning cell phones outright is not about educational policy. For the DOE, it's about control and convenience, while for parents it's a safety issue and the right to promote our kids' well-being.

Justice Andrias commented that his son used to be gone from 8:00 in the morning till 8:00 at night and he never heard from him or knew where he was. (We all figured that Justice Andrias might not have known his son's whereabouts, but his wife surely did.)

But casual comments such as this one fail to take into account how much the world has changed since they--or their children--went to school. Most mothers are at work now, rather than at home keeping close track of their kids' whereabouts, so family arrangements are much more complicated. The advent of cell phones themselves means that there are few pay phones inside schools or on the streets for children to use. No Child Left Behind, among other educational trends, means that many more children of all ages are traveling far from their home schools on public transportation. And the events of 9/11, along with a number of school shootings, have increased parents' concerns about the inability of schools to keep their children safe in school, let alone before and after.

In any case, the other judges gave the DOE a harder time about what the basis for the policy was (the DOE said they didn't need to show any), whether they had looked for any alternatives (we know they didn't), and whether they had looked into policies in other districts.

Civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel waved his silenced cell phone to demonstrate that it was possible to possess a cell phone but not use it. The DOE's refusal to believe that public school students are capable of doing that (while private school students are accorded that right) is an insult to students and parents alike, he said. The lawyers also noted that the number of cell phone incidents the DOE had cited in their briefs amounted to less than two incidents per school per year--not much of a basis for banning them.

For more news on the arguments in court, see the AP story , Daily News and NY Sun.

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