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Student reporters find longtime cell phone ban is still bad news

It’s not often in education journalism that you reach a consensus on a controversial topic.

But that was the case for a group of high school reporters from the Global Learning Collaborative High School who asked their classmates for their opinion on one of the city’s most unpopular policies: the public school ban on cell phones and electronics.

The controversy was first raised in a lively story meeting that was part of a journalism class taught by Assistant Principal Rachel Dahill-Fuchel, who created the weekly class as one of several electives for students to choose from each semester. Dahill-Fuchel said she wants her students to have the opportunity to learn about the news industry and the role it plays in everyday life.

Dahill-Fuchel invited me to visit the school, located on the Brandeis Campus, and talk to the class about the profession. But soon into my visit it became clear that everyone — including myself — would rather see students wearing the reporter’s cap.

So I issued an assignment: Identify a controversial issue affecting the school community and interview people about it.

During our story meeting, students tossed out ideas for school policies that they considered controversial and wanted to pose to their classmates. One idea was the school’s grading policy, which assesses students on a scale of 1 to 4. A student named Angelica said it was harder to be proud of a “4” than it was to be proud of an “A.”

One controversy that wasn’t raised? The co-location of Upper West Success, a new elementary charter school whose siting in the Brandeis Campus, which houses four other high schools, drew two lawsuits and widespread community opposition last year.

Instead, the hot-button issue on students’ mind was the ban on cell phones, especially in buildings such as Brandeis that require students to walk through metal detectors before entering, making it almost impossible to smuggle in electronics. Many students at GLC, where three-quarters of students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, said they end up paying a dollar per day to check their phones at a nearby fax and copy store.

The city has banned cell phones in schools since 1988. Years ago, then-Chancellor Joel Klein weighed relaxing the ban, but Mayor Bloomberg kept it in place even as parents waged — and lost — a lawsuit against the Department of Education, arguing that they should be able to reach their children by phone when necessary.

At GLC, the student reporters found that unanimous opposition to the ban. Students, teachers, and Dahill-Fuchel herself (off-camera) all agreed that the ban should be lifted. Several people suggested that students should be allowed to bring their phones into the schools as long as they stashed them away and used them only in the event of emergencies, as is in the unwritten expectation in many schools that don’t have metal detectors.

Afterward, the students echoed some of the challenges that journalists face every day.

“I have to learn to abbreviate more because people just keep talking and I can’t keep up,” said Maria Felton, a junior who took notes during the interviews.

“People aren’t used to talking to cameras, so we needed to get them to speak up,” said junior Angelica Gomez.