A Fighter for Students' Right to Bear - Cellphones
A Fighter for Students’ Right to Bear — Cellphones
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
By ROBIN FINN
Published: July 21, 2006
THESE days the Department of Education’s ornate headquarters at the Tweed Courthouse constitutes enemy territory for Tim Johnson — it’s probably a violation of good manners to be suing your host. But looking relatively at home, Mr. Johnson parks himself at a kid-scale worktable in an empty classroom downstairs at City Hall Academy. Much like an earnest, albeit supersize, student with a shaved head, he sits attentively in his chair. It is not jacket-and-tie weather, but Mr. Johnson is wearing his on principle.
Tweed Courthouse is, he says, a formal joint, and when he showed up tieless on Tuesday for his first one-on-one summit with Chancellor Joel I. Klein, this two-time P.T.A. president (Public School 234 and Intermediate School 89) felt underdressed. After the cordial but ultimately unsatisfactory meeting, he felt a little worse than that. Summarized in pass/fail terms, the meeting rates a fail. Its main topic, the right of students to carry cellular phones to and from, but not during, school remains not only a bone of contention but, so far as Mr. Johnson can tell, absolutely nonnegotiable from the city’s perspective. Puzzling.
So if this seems like yet another test day at summer school, there’s a reason: Mr. Johnson, 49, is chairman of the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council, a group of 44 parent leaders representing schools from every district in the city. The group meets at Tweed monthly, and on July 13 filed a lawsuit against Mr. Klein, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the Department of Education over the newly enforced and hotly debated ban on students’ cellphones in public schools.
His side — a coalition that includes parents, teachers, the City Council, and phone-toting students — deplores the ban as a shortsighted and capricious threat to student safety in this chronically unsettled post-9/11 environment.
“These are not ordinary times we’re living in,” he says. “ New York City is a target, and so is its public transportation system, and it’s a fact of life peculiar to this city that many of its public-school children use public transit on their school commute. To parents, this is a safety issue first and foremost. Safety trumps everything.” The cellphone-as-lifeline era is upon us, like it or not. The city seems not to.
THE city asserts, for starters, that the phones are a classroom distraction and, in some instances, conduits for cheating and other misdemeanors. The decision to escalate a decades-old “don’t ask, don’t tell” anti-cellphone, anti-beeper policy at the majority of intermediate and high schools to a randomly applied seize-and-confiscate policy at all intermediate and high schools has galvanized parents, Mr. Johnson says, more than any other issue he’s encountered in his seven or so years of school-related advocacy. Parents are, he says, ballistic across the boroughs on this one: they see cellphones as an essential tool for safe parenting, period. Filing a lawsuit was, he says, a last resort.
“This is a classic case of fixing something that isn’t broken,” says Mr. Johnson, a divorced dad whose 12-year-old daughter, Katy, has a 45-minute schlep on the A train from Washington Heights and Inwood (the parents share custody) to her downtown school. “Nobody is advocating that children should be using cellphones during school,” he adds. “But you can’t tell me that it is disruptive for my daughter to put her phone in her backpack inside a locker during class hours.”
Since the city began its random scanning on April 26, some 4,000 cellphones have been confiscated, along with 38 weapons and a smattering of what the city describes as “other disruptive electronic devices” — mostly toys. In a city where family cellphones are endorsed as part of emergency preparedness plans, Mr. Johnson says, the hard line taken by the Department of Education at the mayor’s behest seems counterproductive.
He says he went into his meeting with Mr. Klein hopeful of a settlement: although the Advisory Council, along with eight individual parent plaintiffs, is being represented by Norman Siegel, and its legal fees are covered by the firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Mr. Johnson prefers compromise to litigation.“I asked the chancellor if he could help us change the mayor’s mind on this, or at least open up a dialogue, but he didn’t indicate that it was likely,” Mr. Johnson says, adding that he voted twice for Mr. Bloomberg. “What he basically told me is, ‘This is the mayor’s plan, and I support the mayor.’ I don’t think the mayor’s children grew up in the same world as ours. And I know the mayor rides the subway, but he does it with eight bodyguards. Give Katy eight bodyguards and she can leave her phone at home.”
Mr. Johnson grew up in a Buffalo suburb, and with a knack for playing the bassoon, attended the New England Conservatory of Music and the Juilliard School, where he dropped out of the graduate program. Earning a living as a bassoonist was, he says, next to impossible, so he switched to business. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Baruch, and works for Professional Examination Service, a nonprofit group that develops and licenses certification exams. Under-the-radar stuff.
“Whatever notoriety I have comes from my volunteer activism,” he says. Antinukes, antiapartheid, antiwar and now, by popular demand, pro-cellphone. Sign of the times.
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