Fans of the television sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati” may remember Dr. Johnny Fever’s funniest moment in the series. After he smashed a telephone to pieces in a fit of rage, the paranoid deejay ranted about rabid “phone cops” he believed blew up a building to kill him.
“There’s no such thing as phone cops,” insisted his exasperated boss.
If only there were.
People have debated the proper use of cell phones for almost every setting. Soon California police will ticket drivers for their untimely use. But many teachers like me believe that nowhere do we need phone cops more than in public schools. The valued tools of working people, travelers and parents, cell phones are no friends to education.
Familiar scenes unfold in classrooms across the country every day. A teacher tries to settle down a rowdy group and get the students on task.
Then a phone goes off. Kids all over the room start coughing to prevent the teacher from locating and taking the cell. Then students laugh as the culprit who left the ringer on stashes the phone away.
Or, kids hide their cells beneath their desks while they covertly text each other, forcing teachers to either patrol the room like fanatical phone cops (not fun, bad teaching) or lose control of their classes (fatal).
The tougher teachers get about it, the sneakier students become. Boys pull cells halfway from their pockets for quick peeks before slipping them out of view. Girls place phones face up in open purses held in their laps or on their desks.
Also maddening are the excuses, usually untrue and always impossible to prove or disprove.
“I was just checking the time.”
“I was just turning it off.”
How many teachers have heard this one?
“We need cell phones for safety. Think of Columbine!”
While students used their phones to call for help during the terrible 1999 shooting rampage at the Colorado high school, cells played a different role in a gun scare at my school.
While police searched for a gun that a boy claimed he brought onto campus, our administration locked down the school for about three hours. Confined to their classrooms, hundreds if not thousands of students text-messaged each other and their parents, leading to wild distortions.
According to the messages, a gunman took hostages and killed three students. S.W.A.T. officers stormed the campus and a police dog bit a kid. The whole thing was a terrorist attack which the cops ultimately foiled.
None of this was true, of course, and even the boy who bragged about packing a gun confessed to making it up, but the information warp wreaked havoc in the community. One girl’s parents came to believe that a psychopath was holding their daughter at gunpoint. Ultimately, cell use caused hundreds of hysterical phone calls and false leads, prolonging the lockdown significantly.
The incident demonstrated why our administration cracked down on the issue. Our students are no longer allowed to use cells during school hours, even between classes and at lunch. By and large, this has reduced tardiness and other phone-related problems, but enforcing it is no picnic. Try to take a phone away, and many kids practically hyperventilate or refuse to hand them over.
As the student body’s cell phone possession rate creeps closer to 100 percent and the headache of policing their use grows ever greater, educators can take comfort from one piece of good news news. There is army of phone cops available and motivated to tackle this weary job. But here’s the bad news, fellow teachers: the phone cops are us.