Parent sue for cellphones

Furious over NYC ban, random searches for phones, parents file suit to stop the practice. Officials' control over school rules isn't absolute, they say.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved to ban cellphones in New York City schools, parents were outraged. Here's what one parent said at the time:

"I have her call me when she gets out of school, and she's supposed to get on the bus right away," Lindsay Walt, an artist, said of her daughter, Eve Thomson, 11, a sixth grader at Salk. "Then I have her call me when she gets off the bus, and I have her call me when she gets in the house. The chancellor will have civil disobedience on his hands. No one in New York is going to let their child go to school without a cellphone."

Bloomberg didn't take complaints seriously and now parents have filed a lawsuit against the city's Dept. of Education, the Times reports.

The suit charges that the ban is arbitrary and capricious and violates the right of parents to conduct family relations free of government interference.

The suit is similar to a parental challenge to a plan to distribute condoms to students, a suit that was ultimately successful.

“In the times we are living in, this is completely a safety issue for the overwhelming number of families,” said Tim Johnson, chairman of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, the group that filed the lawsuit. The council consists of 44 elected parent association leaders representing schools in every district in the city.

While the ban dates to a 1988 rule focused on stopping drug dealing in schools, it burst into prominence when the schools chancellor started a program of random scanning of students for communication devices. Since then, officials have confiscated 3,233 cellphones in about 20 schools, as well as 38 weapons, one heavy slab of iron, 250 iPods and 783 other “disruptive electronic devices.” Alexandra Peters, past president of the Parents League, which advises parents about private schools, said, the League "feel[s] pretty strongly that parents have a right to be concerned about their kids’ safety and that cellphones are a good way for them to make sure.” Norman Siegel, a lawyer for the parents, said the Education Dept. had exaggerated the use of phones for illegal activity and that he said he questioned whether confiscating cellphones and requiring parents to pick them up was legally defensible. He said the lawsuit would argue that the ban violates constitutional rights and civil liberties.

The issue is even bigger than cellphones or security. Siegel referenced a 1923 federal case in which Nebraska attempted to require English-only instruction.

“I think it gives us a unique argument that goes to the heart of what Bloomberg and Klein have been saying, that they control the school system,” he said. “Well, they control it to a great degree, but not absolute control. This becomes a test case, not just about cellphones, but about governance.”

Mr. Siegel said he was amazed by how passionately parents felt about cellphones for their children. “In all my years of doing this kind of advocacy, I haven’t seen this depth of strong opposition to an issue that some people think is not important,” he said. “But it is important because it goes to protecting their children.”