MPS starts talk of curbing cell phone use

Milwaukee schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos says the school system must come up with a way to deal with the heavy use of cell phones when trouble breaks out at a school, an innovation that has increased the severity of incidents such as a fight Monday morning at Bradley Tech High School.
Five people were arrested and two others were given citations by police as a result of the fight, which included attacks on several Milwaukee Public Schools safety aides.
The fight, coincidentally, occurred on the same day that officials announced that Bradley Tech, at S. 4th St. and W. National Ave., would be the first MPS school to have a pair of police officers on duty full time. A second pilot project for stationing police in schools – an innovation in MPS, though it is common in suburban schools – will involve a cluster of schools on the north side, focusing on Custer High School, 5075 N. Sherman Blvd.
Andrekopoulos made his remarks about cell phones at a meeting with Bradley Tech teachers Monday afternoon.
The cell phone phenomenon has shown up in other schools in MPS, in the suburbs and nationwide: When trouble breaks out, students reach for the phones, and within moments, other youths are on their way to the scene, sometimes literally from miles around.
Bradley Tech Principal Ed Kovochich said he has had teachers change tests every hour because students take cell phone photographs of the documents and sell copies to peers who haven’t taken the exam.
Although use of cell phones is generally banned in schools, both in Milwaukee and the suburbs, it is obvious to anyone around a high school or middle school – and sometimes even elementaries – that a vast majority of students carry them and use them frequently. Sometimes when schools have tried to crack down on the phones, parents have been the ones to object the most, saying they want their children to be able to reach them during school hours.
Cell phones are banned during MPS basketball games, largely because they have been used during incidents in prior years to summon “help” when trouble breaks out among kids.
Kovochich said he doesn’t know how to stop students from using cell phones in school, a problem he said has gotten out of control.
“We keep having problems with extended members of someone’s family coming up to intervene,” he said. “I’m telling you, this whole thing with the use of cell phones is coming to a head. If we have a simple fight, everyone text-messages or calls their friends, half the school knows about it and shows up.”
On Monday, Kovochich said a staff member came to him during a routine weapons check at the door as students arrived for school and said two girls were arguing over a boy. The staff member thought trouble was about to start.
Within moments, Kovochich said, “all I could see was a ton of cell phones coming out of pockets.” A crowd gathered quickly, and the fight began. Police officers arrested one 17-year-old girl on allegations of substantial battery and issued disorderly conduct citations to another two.
Kovochich said one student must have called her extended family because a short time later, four adult males arrived at the scene, pushed aside the metal detectors, jumped the tables and attacked safety aides and others. Police eventually arrested all four men. Kovochich said he saw the butt of a gun sticking out of the pocket of one of the four.
Andrekopoulos told the Tech teachers, “We’re going to have to come up with a strategy” to minimize the negative effects of having cell phones in the hands of the vast majority of students.
He said MPS security chief Peter Pochowski began calling other districts Monday to find out what they do to hold down cell phone use during crises.
Kovochich told a reporter it’s also possible the schools could petition the Federal Communications Commission to allow for special antennas that, with a flip of a button, could block a citywide swath from cell phone service.
The pilot projects to place two pairs of police officers full time in MPS schools comes after a series of violent episodes this fall, including attacks on a principal and several teachers. Mayor Tom Barrett, Police Chief Nannette Hegerty, Andrekopoulos and leaders of MPS labor organizations have been meeting to come up with a plan.
“We’ve heard you loud and clear,” Sid Hatch, assistant executive director of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, told the Bradley Tech teachers. “It is painfully clear that the schools’ safety and security is the foremost issue in the minds of teachers.”
The effort is to be funded by up to $250,000 from the police budget and $250,000 from MPS. The “school resource officers” will begin work with the start of the second semester in late January, Andrekopoulos said.
Andrekopoulos told the high school staff that Bradley Tech was not picked for the program because it was the worst school in the city. On the contrary, he said, grade-point averages, attendance and graduation rates have risen over the last several years. But he said factors including the launch of a schoolwide academic and behavior program this fall made it a good candidate.
He said a good climate for education could be created in Milwaukee schools, but it will take “a herculean effort of all of us working together.”