Schools ask teachers to watch for devices 

As cell phones become ubiquitous among students and teachers bring more technology into the classroom, schools are struggling to keep those tools from becoming cyber-distractions.

As many as 87 percent of American teens use the Internet, and 78 percent of those use it during school hours, according to a fall 2005 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Add to that the fact that teens frequently use cell phones to send brief text messages to one another, and you’ve got the modern-day equivalent of passing notes in class — with less physical evidence.

Because teachers aren’t often well-versed in students’ online and text-message behavior, schools are beginning to train them to know what to look for. They’re also developing policies to put a lid on extracurricular Web-browsing and cell-phone use.

"In general, we’re becoming very strict because it’s become an immense distraction," said Richard Hardt, technology director for the San Mateo Union High School District. "The difficult thing is training our faculty and staff, because we’re of a different era; the kids are able to adapt and can do a lot of things under the radar."

It’s almost impossible to outlaw computer and Internet use in the classroom because it has become a significant part of the curriculum, Hardt said. However, some districts are adopting Web filtration systems to curb students’ ability to visit popular sites.

"We have a filtering system that blocks all pornographic sites, all downloads, and both MySpace and YouTube," said Lou Silberman, director of technology at the Jefferson Union High School District. But curbing cell-phone use is "a sticky legal issue — we can’t tell them they can’t have cell phones, but we can say they may not use them except between classes."

In the South Bay, some high-school students are using text messaging to plan after-school fights and gang activity, according to Dennis Barbata, information technology services director in San Jose’s East Side Union High School District.

For now, it appears that activity has not spread to younger gang members in San Mateo County, but some law-enforcement officers say there’s no way to know for sure. While it’s certain that some local gangs have fashioned Web sites and MySpace profiles, there’s no clear evidence that students are hitting such sites during school hours.

"We wouldn’t put it past them," said San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department Sgt. Tom Gallagher, a member of the county’s gang task force. "We know they’re using cell phones and pagers and the Internet, and they’re hip to changing screen names constantly and using disposable phones."

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