Union Democrat staff

Ninety-eight percent.

That was the most startling statistic to emerge from last week's Sonora High School Board discussion on student cell phone use.

That, said junior Luke Houghton, is the percentage of students who violate a school rule against texting or otherwise using a cell phone in class. In other words, he said, everybody flouts the rule.

Houghton should know: He's the student representative on the school board.

"It may be an enforcement issue," Houghton understated.

It also shows that Trustee Ed Clinite's concern that using cell phones might be "distracting" to students is more than justified.

Think about it: What if 98 percent of the school's students were talking in class? Or even 50 percent? Or even 30?

Maybe texting away on your phone is not as loud or as obvious as

talking, but in terms of distracting students from the lessons at hand,

it's just as harmful. And, how could texting during an exam possibly

improve your scores?

In fact, school administrators suspect, cell phone use during annual state tests may be hurting Sonora High's scores.

Teens are easily distracted and are focusing more on text messages

than on their lessons, contended Clinite. "Who's doing something to

make them serious?" he asked.

Houghton conceded that rampant texting can defeat the purpose of

school and that the first-offense punishment - having your phone

confiscated for the rest of the day - is not much of a deterrent.

"It's detrimental to the whole classroom environment," said Trustee Kathy Ankrom. "It's disrespectful."

Although High School Principal Todd Dearden said Houghton's 98

percent figure is likely high, he conceded that in-class texting has

become a campus problem.

Although trustees had no solutions last week, Clinite ventured an

ultimatum: "Let students know that if they're not serious, we're going

to change the policy."

But what changes would those be?

A few districts, most notably the huge New York City school system,

ban cell phones outright. But Dearden said this would likely be

unpopular with parents concerned with their sons' and daughters' safety

and the ability to contact them in the case of an emergency.

"I'm not even sure we could legally do it," he said.

Other schools, including Angels Camp's Bret Harte High, have a

"zero tolerance" policy forbidding any cell phone use on campus.

Calaveras and Summerville high schools, like Sonora, allow phone

use at lunch hour and between classes. But, at least so far, problems

like those aired at Sonora's meeting have not come to light on those


"And I would be the first to hear about them," said Dave Urquhart, Summerville's principal.

Which brings us back to enforcement, which Dearden conceded could be stepped up at Sonora's campus.

As it is, the principal said, Sonora High confiscates 10 to 15 phones every day (to Summerville's daily average of one).

There are fewer second offenses, where parents must come to campus

to pick up illicitly used phones, and only a handful of three-time

losers who have been stripped of their cell privileges altogether.

But if what Houghton says is even close to close to correct, the

above numbers may represent only the most blatant of violations.

Classroom enforcement, clearly, must be stepped up.

Teachers, understandably, may not be enthusiastic about being phone

cops. Yes, a serious crackdown may take a few days, but it would have

long-term benefits.

The school's message would be clear, as would the answer to Trustee Clinite's question.

Strict enforcement of the school's cell phone policy would indeed

be doing "something to make the students serious" - or at least far

less distracted - in the classroom.