The long-running battle between the Department of Education and the City Council
shows no sign of letting up. In fact, if rhetoric exchanged at an Education
Committee hearing last week offer any indication, the fight could move to a new
and even more acrimonious level and even wind up in court.
Earlier this month, the City Council
overrode Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s
veto of a bill --
351-A â€“ that requires the city to allow public school
students to have cell phones with them on their way to and from school every
day. The next day, Department of Education safety agents set up their scanners
at Forest Hills
High School in Queens, which is “not a school that has a reputation for having students who
carry weapons,” as the
Blog put it. But agents predictably found lots of cell phones
and confiscated them.
"The thing that is quite clear is that the City Council has decided to override
the mayor's veto, so it's law now," City Councilmember Melinda Katz, whose
district includes the school, told the
Ledger. "Why they would [confiscate phones] is beyond me."
Setting the Boundaries
The administration, however, has made it clear it does not feel bound by the
council’s action. When asked by the bill’s sponsor, Councilmember
Lewis Fidler of Brooklyn, whether the council and administration could sit down
and attempt to reach a compromise on this issue, Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott
was largely dismissive. While he “respects the override of the veto” and
remains “open to dialogue,” Walcott told council members a meeting
was unlikely to produce any results. Cell phones in schools represent an issue
where the administration and the council “will always be at odds,” he
Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg won mayoral control of the schools, the administration
has adamantly maintained that it â€“ and it alone, not the City Council â€“ has
responsibility for what goes on inside school buildings. In addition, Walcott
indicated the bill does not do anything since it does not address what goes on
“They’ve read the first sentence and ignored the second,” Fidler said.
While the bill does say students should be allowed to have phones going to and
from school â€“ ignoring what goes on in class â€“ it also states, "No
person shall interfere with the provision of such telephone to, or the use of
such telephone by, such student.”
“They can collect every cell phone as kids come into school,” said Fidler,
but school officials would then have to return the phone at the end of the day. "It
will not permit them to confiscate a phone that is not being misused.”
The bill was worded this way precisely to address the issues of mayoral control. “We’ve
gone to the very limits of our power,” Fidler said. “We’re
not telling them what to do on school grounds.”
Despite Walcott’s comments, a City Council spokesperson and Fidler expressed
hope that the two sides could reach a compromise in the next 90 days.
"We at this point still remain very hopeful that the Department of Education and
the administration will respect the cell phone legislation we passed into law," said
the council spokesperson, Anthony Hogrebe.
But if that does not happen, the case could end up in court. The legislation specifically states that a person whose rights under the law are interfered with
can go to court. This means, Fidler said, that a student whose cell phone was
confiscated â€“ or the parents of that child â€“ could bring a legal
challenge against the Department of Education. While saying he could not speak
for his wife or son â€“ a public school student who, on his parents’ instructions,
carries a cell phone â€“ “we would be wiling to be that plaintiff.”
The council might also challenge the Bloomberg administration â€“ and
it would not be the first time. In 2004, the council approved legislation,
by Quinn, barring any city agency from entering into a contract for more than
$100,000 with an entity that did not offer domestic partners the same benefits
as spouses. In that case,
the administration won in the State Court of Appeals, which stated Bloomberg
did not have to
laws he deemed invalid.
During the Giuliani administration, legal battles, including lawsuits that
accused the council of impeding on the mayor's
executive power, were
A Ringing Controversy
While cell phones had long been officially banned in city schools, the prohibition
only affected students in so-called scanner schools, buildings where all students
went through metal detectors every day. These tended to be schools that the education
department considered unsafe. Some parents and students in those schools had
, claiming it unfairly discriminated against the predominantly low-income,
black and Latino students who went to those schools.
But the issue gained prominence in spring 2006 when the administration announced
it would begin
with portable metal detectors throughout the city. The devices
could be at any school at any time â€“ without warning. Safety agents would
confiscate any and all cell phones and generally not return them until a parent
or guardian showed up to claim it.
The decision sparked an uproar. Parents contend cell phones are a necessity in
a city where students, some as young as 11 or 12, travel long distances. The
administration’s ban, many have said, shows how out of touch the department is with
the challenges of raising children in New York and how it dismisses the
For its part, department officials argue that students use cell phones to cheat
on tests, take unauthorized pictures of their fellow students and disrupt classes.
Students have even, officials say, used the phones to organize attacks on fellow
Last week’s City Council hearing showed that18 months have done nothing
to dim the intensity of these arguments. The hearing was focused on the department’s
efforts to engage and involve parents. But when Councilmember Peter Vallone, chair of the council
Public Safety Committee, had an opportunity to question Walcott and Martine Guerrier,
who is in charge of parent involvement for the department, he quickly brought
up cell phones and criticized Guerrier for not challenging the department’s
policy. “If parents are overwhelmingly against this ban, would it be part
of Ms. Guerrier’s job to convey that?” he said.
Apparently not. Guerrier’s office is not responsible for cell phone policy
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