A short time before my school was slated for possible turnaround status in January we saw our first “random” scanning by the New York Police Department. In the short time that has followed we have had three additional visits.

Scanning is quite the operation. Students are herded into a roped-off line leading into the gymnasium, which is transformed into a pseudo-airport where scanning machines and a large police presence have replaced games of basketball and volleyball.

The items at the center of this process seem to be cell phones. Department of Education policy prohibits cell phones in school, but many schools turn a blind eye. Some students are able to get their phones through the scanners while many have their phones taken from them. If a phone is taken, parents are required to come to the school to reclaim their child’s property.

Is cell phone use in schools a serious problem? Yes. I understand, and can empathize, with the argument frequently made by parents: Having a phone is a matter of safety and allows parents and their children to contact each other in the unfortunate case of an emergency. But students are constantly using their phones in non-emergency situations.

Cell phones, for better or for worse, have become an engrained part of everyday life. My students do not know life without them — they use them to text in the hall, entering and leaving class, and in the middle of lessons. Teachers are responsible for curbing usage to some degree, and creating quality lessons, I hope, encourages participation and discourages phone use. At the same time, I can attest from experience that there are some students that will push the boundaries regardless of the pace of the lesson. (I believe the answer lies in teaching proper phone-use etiquette.)

Despite these challenges, scanning and confiscating phones is not the answer. These are some observations I have made during the days where scanning has taken place:

  • As students approach the school they must walk up a long, gradual hill. On scanning days, police vehicles parked in front of the building alert students to the situation. Those that fear the loss of their phone simply turn around and choose not to attend.
  • Those who make the decision to attend have their phones taken away. In many cases these are academically-conscious students who rarely use their phones during instructional time.
  • Students that do attend are very late to class because of long lines.  The first three classes on these days are generally “throw-away” as such reduced attendance does not allow teachers to move ahead with the planned lesson.  (In one instance, scanning took place on the day students were to take school-wide quarterly exams.) Additionally, with the gymnasium being the center of activity, all physical education classes are relegated to sitting in the auditorium for 45 minutes.
  • Students who have their phones taken are in bad spirits for the rest of the day.  They feel angry, upset and violated — focusing on academics is not the first thing on many of their minds.

While I do not have access to the detailed findings of scanning, to the best of my knowledge there has been no public, or school-wide, announcement of any weapons being found.

On scanning days, my students have told me: “This is a school, not a prison.”  “The lady at the local deli is holding phones for the day for one dollar so students can attend without losing their phones.”  “One student tried to turn around when he saw the police outside and he was tackled by them.”

I cannot attest to the accuracy of the last two student comments as I did not witness either event. But even if they are rumors, they are troubling and distracting to the school environment. (And at many schools with permanent metal detectors, local shop owners and even mobile storage trucks charge students to keep their phones safe during the day.)

Yet it is the first comment that merits the most concern.

Students feel that in our school — a place that is supposed to provide physical and emotional safety — they are increasingly being treated more like criminals than students. This is a serious problem with serious implications. How “random” is the scanning? Are students at top-performing test-based-admission schools facing the same situation?

The staff and administration work tirelessly everyday to help our students to improve academically.  As we continue to work amidst the impending turnaround vote – one that would see 50 percent of the staff displaced and our school reopened under a new name — the city has thrown yet another roadblock in our path. Attendance rates play a part in how schools are rated on the yearly report cards — we have no control over the fact that scanning has given us several days of abysmal attendance.

If the goal of the Department of Education is to provide every student with a quality education, policies such as scanning — which lower attendance and interfere with learning — cannot be implemented at schools that are already facing monumental challenges.

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