Justin Fox-Bailey, an English teacher at Snohomish High School, answered a student's ringing cellphone. It was Mom. "I said, 'Hi! No, he's still in...

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Justin Fox-Bailey, an English teacher at Snohomish High School, answered a student’s ringing cellphone. It was Mom.

“I said, ‘Hi! No, he’s still in class,’ ” Fox-Bailey said.

At many local schools, educators get nearly as much hassle over cellphones from parents as students. To teachers’ dismay, some parents — who usually pick up the monthly tab — want 24/7 access, calling or texting during the school day.

And take away a kid’s phone for surreptitiously texting during class? Get ready for an angry teen, backed by an upset parent, administrators say.

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This year, Skyview Junior High School in Bothell required students and parents to sign an agreement before teens can bring any personal technology to school. Before, “No matter how often I talked about it or sent out newsletters, it was hard to set up a common understanding,” said principal Mike Anderson.

Now the contract spells out the school’s expectations and consequences: If teachers catch kids with a device in class, a parent must come retrieve it. After the second infraction, the student is banned from bringing it again. This will help meetings with parents go “far differently,” Anderson said.

As schools cope with ubiquitous electronic gadgets, from cellphones to iPods to personal digital assistants to portable gaming systems, they also deal with a lot of misconceptions.

Here are a few electronic-device facts:

Families with school-age children planned to spend $4.2 billion on back-to-school electronics or computers, including laptops, PDAs and calculators. That was up 10 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey. By region, more than half the parents in the West said they included electronics on their shopping list, spending an average $213, the Federation found.

Here are a few myths:

Myth: Teachers hate gadgets

Many teachers post classroom signs of a cellphone circled with a slash through it. Others prefer to “co-opt” the technology.

“Students have been writing notes to each other in class for a long time,” said Fox-Bailey. “But we didn’t ban paper and pencils.”

He views personal technology as a tool and emphasizes appropriate use. “It’s a problem if they make phone calls in class just like it’s a problem if they talk to their neighbor,” he said. “I don’t give electronics special priority — it’s like any other distraction.”

Students don’t wear watches anymore, preferring to use cellphone clocks, Fox-Bailey said. Some phones also serve as PDAs for assignment due dates. When students work on group projects, he tells them to get out their cellphones and swap numbers. Some download audio books or vocabulary lists to review on iPods.

“I always want them to read a book,” he said. “But the audio is a nice complement.”

He allows students to listen to music in class during free reading time. “Some kids can’t read unless they have something to distract them from the ambient noise,” he said. At some schools, students can wear MP3 players for PE running days.

If Fox-Bailey is unsure about a fact during a lecture, a student will offer to look it up on his phone, via the Internet.

At Bellevue’s Newport High School, students are encouraged to bring laptops to class to take notes and to use PDAs for tracking assignments, said Principal Patty Siegwarth. (Although the entire building has wireless Internet access, students are prohibited from using the network on their personal computers during class time.)

Students use electronics as “a way to accessorize their identity,” Fox-Bailey said. “This is how they express themselves.”

Myth: Phones are the worst

Many gadgets serve multiple purposes, making it hard for strict rules. Most schools ask students to take off hats and hoods so teachers can make sure students’ ears are clear of iPod buds.

“There’s a lot of stuff out there,” said Tom Duenwald, principal at Bellevue’s Tillicum Middle School. “I don’t want to spend all my time policing electronic devices. What really matters to us is instructional class time. And at lunch, we want the kids interacting socially.”

Some portable game systems can communicate with something similar to instant messaging, while cellphones offer game play. With wireless access, teens can play multiplayer games over the Internet on handheld game systems such as PlayStation Portable. (Some teachers report kids signing up for a particular class just because they know that area of the building has wireless coverage.) Some cellphones take pictures, connect to the Internet or play music.

“What are we going to say, ‘You can’t have an iPod, but you can have an iPhone?’ ” said Duenwald.

Myth: Only high schools care

At Tillicum, Duenwald watched as students pulled out their cellphones to wave the lit screens, like at a rock concert, during an assembly’s musical performance. “I’d say 60 to 70 percent of them had cellphones in their pockets,” he said.

They’re also put to more nefarious purposes. “We have had students text each other back and forth about tests,” noted Bellevue’s Odle Middle School Assistant Principal Alexa Allman in an e-mail. Anderson, who estimates more than 70 percent of Skyview’s students own phones, found students using camera phones to capture test pages.

Myth: Phones go in lockers

Separating teens from their cellphones is often like trying to amputate an extra appendage. At a growing number of schools, the rule is “off and out of sight,” not locked away. “We’ve gotten to the point where we prefer they have it on their person to reduce the theft rate,” explained Duenwald.

Bellevue mom Cindy Hastings, whose seventh-grader doesn’t have a cellphone (“although he’s begging for one”), worries there’s a “huge temptation” to turn phones on. “I think the reality is, if they have a phone with them, they will be checking it,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll be able to resist looking at them during breaks.”

Most secondary schools allow cellphone use before and after school; some, especially high schools, also give the OK at lunch and in walkways.

At Newport, students can carry and use phones during the school day but must turn them off during class, assemblies and in the library. Some teachers keep a box where students must leave cellphones before using a restroom pass, Siegwarth noted. Even schools like Skyview that require kids to stash gadgets find they still get left unattended in backpacks or in unlocked lockers.

With the tiny gadgets starting at $50 and heading up from there, they’re a prime target for thieves but difficult to recover. “Everything is expensive,” said Anderson. “I could spend hours and hours on it.”

Stephanie Dunnewind: sdunnewind@seattletimes.com or 206-464-2091.

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