Bait & Switch: A View of the Cell Phone Ban, From the Bronx

Lolo wakes up at 5:30 in the morning while the sky is still dark. He jets out of his apartment in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx by 6:30 and hops the 6 train southbound to 125th to catch the 4 train northbound to Mosholu Parkway, getting to his high school in the Bronx by about 7:45. If he gets there any later, the lines outside his school prevent him from landing in his first period class by 8:15. If he’s late, even by a minute, he sits in the lunchroom for the entirety of first period. Three days out of five, Lolo is late for first period. “If I get to school by 7:55, I’m not getting to class. They’ll tell me to go sit in the cafeteria. No questions,” says Lolo. On the two days a week that he finds himself in his seat for first period, he can’t believe it—“before it was like, oh my god, I can’t believe I’ve been standing here for fifteen minutes and I’m gonna be late to class. But after a while, I was like wow, it’s 8 o’clock and I’m in my seat. This is great. I can’t believe I’m getting to class on time.”

From 7:30 until 8, the 4 train stops at Mosholu Parkway in 10 minute intervals and a new surge of mostly Black and Hispanic teenagers rush across the Parkway, stopping traffic as the light changes from green to red. At the entrance to DeWitt Clinton High School, Lolo and 4,388 other students remove their belts, their boots, and any other object of clothing that might cause the metal detector to go off.

After the metal detectors, scanning wands, and armies of security personnel were introduced to Clinton students in September 2005, the lines at the East side of the building extended halfway down the block to Bronx Science, one of the City’s top 5 most prestigious public high schools. The two schools occupy opposite ends of the spectrum of high school surveillance/security/cell phone ban policy. Asked what he thought about Mayor Bloomberg’s and Chancellor Klein’s newly imposed cell phone ban, Lolo flatly stated, “It’s very obvious they’re singling out minority schools. Bronx Science is on the same block as our school and they don’t have metal detectors and their kids can bring whatever they want.”

During the students’ morning ritual at Clinton, if a metal detector goes off the student is asked to remove a suspected item of clothing. If the detector goes off again, the student is scanned by security. If the detector still goes off, the student might be escorted to a back room and told to remove everything. “They told us that if we didn’t clear the metal detectors, they’d make us go back through, they’d scan us. If we didn’t clear, they’d take us to a back room and ask us to remove everything,” Lolo tells me.

Students caught with doo-rags, hats, beads, cell phones, iPods, and t-shirts with snowmen on them will be asked to leave or have them confiscated. (Rapper Young Jeezy’s grimacing snowman logo t-shirt—accused of being a coded symbol for cocaine—has been banned from school districts across the country). Big white posters tacked to the walls in the hallways of the school announce these rules. Though students have learned how to sneak contraband into school, the loss of a cell phone or iPod isn’t worth the financial risk.

The 22 stairwells used by students to get to and from classes on six floors are enclosed like caged bullpens; surveillance cameras are mounted high in the corners. But without knowing where the monitors are, students are convinced they don’t work. So a lot goes on in the stairwells. The school is over-crowded and its heavy security does little to offset the tensions that arise—if anything, it exacerbates them. Lolo contends that, “if you put 5,000 kids of any color altogether in a school like this, there’s going to be tension; there’s going to be fights. It’s unsafe.”

Down the street, Bronx Science houses about half the number of students as Clinton. Its mostly Asian and white students jump off the 4 train at Bedford Parkway (one stop before Mosholu) and walk two blocks into the front entrance of school in time for first period. If they’re late, they might text or call a friend to let them in a side entrance while going to the bathroom. They encounter no metal detectors, few if any security guards, and no posters warning them about confiscated items. In the broad foyer, next to windows streaming sunlight into a bright entryway, sits a security guard at her station. At her desk, she monitors the outside courtyard and each corner of the school. The building extends the length of the block; long corridors feature framed school club posters and memorabilia of famous alumni.

Three days a week, Lolo leaves school and takes the 4 train to his job at Washington Mutual Bank on West Fordham Road where he’s paid $8 an hour as a “HIP-ster” (a High school Internship Program which trains students to be bank tellers). After work, he hops on the BX12, transfers to the BX39, and arrives home at 8 PM.

The cell phone ban, which has been in effect since 9-11, has been dealt with by teachers, staff, and administrators in the spirit of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy: don’t have it out during class or it will be confiscated. Lolo, a Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx, can’t be reached between the hours of 6:30 AM and 8 PM, and hasn’t carried his cell phone to or from school since September 2005.

It’s not that students need their devices during class time—they don’t—but it’s the time between—the train ride to and from—that being able to listen to music during a long commute or reach a parent matters. It’s a privilege some kids have and others don’t.

The cell phone ban is an outcome of a policy initiated in April 2006 by Bloomberg, Klein, and the Department of Education, stating that police officers with metal detectors will conduct unannounced sweeps of students and their bags at roughly 80% of middle schools and high schools throughout the city that do not have permanently installed metal detectors. The new searches quickly led to the confiscation of students’ cell phones.

The furor evoked by such a policy, and played up by local and national media, was not in response to students being subjected to increased surveillance, threats to civil liberties and human dignity, or to unannounced, random searches. People are pissed about the ban on cell phones. Parent organizers rallied around the need for their children to have phones before and after school. Klein acknowledged parents’ ire; Bloomberg refused to hear their concerns, insisting that phones are used to cheat, to coordinate gang-initiated violence, or to take inappropriate photos in bathrooms.

Despite the efforts of grassroots organizations and the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) to reorient the media focus on the policing of schools, the Klein/Bloomberg tag-team approach has worked to keep the issue focused on cell phones. But the real debate is about the increased policing of 80% of NYC public schools when the “opportunity gap” grows wider between those who inherit a privileged or a policed education.

The recent media surrounding the issue, while misguided, has its advantages. For one, it reminds all of us that a Department of Education under mayoral control can initiate policy without consulting with or responding to the concerns of parents, administrators, educators, or students. It also makes clear that leveling the playing field in the era of “No Child Left Behind” means revoking the civil liberties of everyone; it does not mean elevating conditions for those in the poorest, most over-crowded, and least performing schools.

Though Senator Thomas K. Duane (D-Manhattan) recently introduced a bill to prohibit schools from confiscating cell phones, it’s unlikely the DOE will rescind its ban on schools where metal detectors are already permanent. If anything, it allows the DOE to negotiate strategically and secretly with administrators and parents whose children attend the city’s top tier schools, while continuing to organize poorer schools like prisons—creating the conditions by which students learn how best to maneuver the system, befriend security to sneak in contraband, or drop out altogether.

For Lolo and so many other urban teenagers in crowded, heavily policed schools around the city, metal detectors and seized cell phones represent the tip of an iceberg: an excuse to be harassed by security personnel not only at the start of, but throughout their day. Aware of being watched in every setting—retail stores, corner bodegas, public parks, subways, en route from one point to another—Black and Hispanic youth are contending with a degree of surveillance that surpasses the bulk of what we’ve come to expect in post-9-11 NYC; and their awareness of it is astute.

Rafael, a student at Clinton who left school late this year due to family issues, told me that “surveilling is watching, like stalking almost. Surveillance is constant, often. They find out my habits … Being watched, they don’t know anything about you, but they’re still there watching. Like the security guard didn’t even know my name, and he told me, I saw you taking the 4 train. How does that make me feel?”

School policy isn’t concerned with students and their feelings. It does a good job of conditioning students for what they’ll face in society, though. Especially if those students are Black, or Hispanic, and poor.

Since September, students at Clinton have grown accustomed to waiting in line to get to class. “Things have gotten smoother but not because of security—security is just as bad. It’s gotten better because of the students. We’re less aggravated because we know what’s gonna happen,” Lolo tells me.

Despite the students’ acclimation to policing policy in schools, those who enter and exit a building manned by technology and staff focused on weeding out weapons (though the recent stabbing inside Brandeis High School, where metal detectors are permanent, suggests otherwise), recognize an affront to their dignity when they see it. They put up with it because doing otherwise would mean being kicked out of high school.

Lolo isn’t fazed, though. He plans to graduate on time no matter what. Even if it means leaving his cell phone at home, removing his belt and boots each morning, regularly missing first period, being suspected as a criminal and harassed by security guards, swallowing his pride. At 16, Lolo’s got big plans.

Contributor

Jen Weiss

Jen Weiss is the director of Youth Speaks NY. She is co-author of Brave New Voices.