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Stuyvesant students, parents report mixed messages on tech

The crackdown on cell phones at Stuyvesant High School has extended in some cases to laptop computers and tablets, according to people in and close to the school.

With the school year just four days old, parents already buzzed in emails to each other about the confiscations. But school officials are in the process of explaining the abrupt change in the way they plan to handle phones and other electronic devices, and the devices will be permitted under some circumstances, students said today.

Monday’s confiscations came after Stuyvesant teachers and administrations seized 17 cell phones on the first two days of the school year. While city students have long been banned from bringing cell phones into schools, students at Stuyvesant and other schools where security is generally not a concern say their principals and teachers have usually turned a blind eye to phones that emerge in their classrooms. But after a student used a cell phone to help dozens of students cheat on final exams in June, Stuyvesant’s new principal seems to be renewing enforcement.

The crackdown has in some ways jolted the tech-savvy community at Stuyvesant,  which includes course offerings that often requires extensive work on computers. Students said today that nearly everyone brought a smartphone, laptop or tablet to school in the past and had grown accustomed to using them freely throughout the day.

The Department of Education’s regulations about school security say that “ipods, beepers and other communication devices” are also verboten.

It’s the last point, about communication, that seems to have muddied enforcement of the policy at Stuyvesant. Department officials say computers that don’t communicate are allowed in schools, and they are passing the message along to teachers at Stuyvesant.

“We’re reinforcing with teachers that laptops are not to be confiscated unless used to communicate with other students,” said Connie Pankratz, a department spokeswoman.

The entire school is equipped with wireless connectivity, allowing students to use computers and tablets to log online from anywhere in the building. Students said it was typical in the past to see students sitting in hallways and common areas working or playing online during their lunch and free periods.

And some teachers ask their students to communicate electronically, students said. Kayla Halbey said her government teacher created an online folder where students can submit assignments electronically up to a minute before class starts. “So if I don’t have my computer with me I can’t hand in my homework,” she said.

What the rules actually are has been murky. Students said enforcement of the city’s policy had varied from classroom to classroom. Many said their understanding was that computers and tablets would be confiscated if taken out of their bags in the hallway, but none said they actually gotten those instructions. A parent reported on an internal parent email list that at least one confiscation had taken place during a class, but a teacher said no policy had been distributed to school staff.

During an after-school assembly for juniors today, Principal Jie Zhang introduced herself and explained the new technology policy. Multiple students reported that Zhang told them computers and laptops would be permitted in the future for students whose parents submit a request in writing explaining that the devices help compensate for a disability or even for poor handwriting.

Some students said the uncertainty has caused even some teachers to eye their phones differently. ”They said they will get in trouble if they don’t take away phones on sight,” said Muhaimen Ahmed, a senior. “They’re even more careful about using their own phones.”