July 14, 2009— -- When students in Abilene, Texas, return to class in six weeks they better not be caught using their cell phones.
No calls, no texting, no surfing the Web. If they slip up and are caught, they better be prepared to pay the price: confiscation of their cell phone until they pay a $15 fine. After the second offense, their parent must come in to pay the $15.
The fines are meant as a get-tough approach to what educators call an out-of-control use of phones and other mobile devices in the classroom. But in this economic downturn, the fees are bringing some much-needed revenue into the empty coffers of school districts.
Schools across the country have been cracking down on cell phone use but nowhere has that stance been stronger than in Texas where state regulations allow individual districts to confiscate the devices and charge up to $15 for their return.
Abilene is just one of the latest districts to toughen its stance.
Across the state at the Klein Independent School District teachers have been confiscating cell phones and slapping students with the $15 fee for two years.
In that time, the district has collected $100,948 from students. That's right, $100,948 just from errant cell phone users.
"I think that high number speaks volumes about students using their phones at inappropriate times," said Trazanna Moreno, spokeswoman for the district just north of Houston. "That number represents how much students are connected to that handheld, mobile technology and the fact that it's so hard for them to break that connection."
But don't think that the Klein district -- with its 42,789 students -- has found the solution to its budget concerns.
The money can only be used by the school principals for enrichment activities that go beyond what the school normally offers. That could be anything from a pizza party to reward students, to a prize auction for students who aren't tardy, to providing scholarships for students who need physical education uniforms or to buy supplies for an art class.
"Klein didn't start doing this as fundraiser. It did it to keep children focused," Moreno said. "None of the funds are being used to support everyday activities that are being paid for by the taxpayers. … None of the funds are used to fill a deficit or anything like that."
In fact, the district didn't budget the money or even know how much was coming in to its 39 schools from cell phone use until a reporter asked.
"I think it's safe to say we were surprised when we added it up," Moreno said.
She said that after two years it's unclear if there is a measureable impact on students using the phones in the classroom.
"It's just too early to tell," Moreno said.
For Donna Greenan, a parent at the Klein Collins High School in Spring, Texas, the fees have become a big pain.
"I think it's a little bit too much," she said of the school's policy.
Both of her children have been caught about three or four times using their phones. Now when she comes in to pay the fines, she pays in pennies.
She and her kids will often text throughout the day. Her daughter was ecstatic over making National Honor Society and sent a message immediately.
Besides, she said, the cell phone usage policy is unfair, especially when "the teachers are using them in the classroom."
The Katy Independent School Distinct, west of Houston, forbid students from bringing phones to school in 2006.
"Between the first bell and the last bell, students should not be using their cell phones and that includes lunch," said Steve Stanford, assistant director of communications for the district.
If caught, the phone is confiscated and parents have to pay a $15 "administrative fee."
Stanford said he was unable to say how much money the 58,000-student district had collected since the rule went into effect. The money is used to help offset the cost of summer school.
Carolyn Counce, director of policy service at Texas Association of School Boards, said that it is up to each of the state's 1,000 different districts to set its own policy. But they all have to live within the guidelines of a state law -- first passed in 1995 regarding pagers -- that allows a fine of up to $15. The state does not collect data on how many phones are confiscated and Counce was not sure if other states had similar policies.
Representatives at the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education and the National School Boards Association also had not heard of such fines in other states.
Tammy Mitchell, is vice president of the Spring Hill Independent School District's PTA in Longview, Texas.
Her husband was a school teacher and they have a teenage daughter with a cell phone.
The family has "pretty strict rules" about the cell phone use and her daughter has never been slapped with a $15 fine. Still, she doesn't think the fine is that effective.
"I survived school without a cell phone and I'm kind of concerned that they are kind of out of control and a disruption," Mitchell said. But, "I don't know if the $15 penalty is really doing anything to improve the situation."
"They pay their $15, get the cell phone back and they're still using it," she added. "They are trying to be just a little more discrete about it. They sort of mock the system, in my opinion."
Mitchell said that good kids will do the responsible thing.
"The ones who don't care, and are obnoxious, get caught with their cell phones and pay the $15 fine, generally don't care about other things," she said. "What's $15 to most kids? They're not the ones paying it most of the time."
There have been times when her daughter has texted during school. But Mitchell draws a firm line.
"If my daughter texts me during the day and it's not a break or lunch time, I won't reply," she said. "I won't even acknowledge her because she's not supposed to have her phone."
She doesn't know what the schools should do to stop the rampant cell phone use, but fines -- in her mind -- are not the answer.
"But hey if it helps supplement the school's budget, I am for it," Mitchell added. "There are some tough times with the schools. I'm okay with them collecting the money, but I don't know that's teaching our kids anything."