Houston-area school districts explain student cellphone fines

By Aaron Wische - Senior Executive Producer , Amy Davis - Reporter/Consumer Expert

HOUSTON - They're the sounds of staying connected in the 21st century: ringing, vibrating, constant notifications. And even children are carrying cellphones these days, often into classrooms.

"They have phones. They have smartphones. They could be playing games, they could be doing all kinds of stuff," said Hafedh Azaiez, the principal at Paul Revere Middle School on Houston's west side.

But at Paul Revere, Principal Azaiez said he wants students focused on social studies, not social media. So when the school bell rings, he expects the buzzing of cellphones to stop.

"We don't want them to interrupt their learning or their classmates' learning," said Azaiez.

Depending on the school, children may or may not be able to use a cellphone on campus, but Texas Education Code states that any school in the state can confiscate a student's phone and charge a fee to get it back.

When a teacher confiscated the cellphone belonging to Steve Cline's son, the principal at Lake Olympia Middle School told him it would cost him $15 cash to get it back.

"It's my money, my property and it kind of angered me," Cline told Local 2.

Cline paid the fee in pennies to send a message.

"I wanted to make sure if I had to work for this, they had to work for this, too."

Apparently keeping kids off cellphones at school is a lot of work. For proof,  you don't have to look any further than the cash school districts across the Houston area collected just last year.

Humble Independent School District amassed more than $34,000 just at its middle and high schools. Klein Independent School District took in $38,029 And Houston Independent School District raked in more than $109,137.

Eight out of 14 districts gave Local 2 Investigates numbers to show how much money they collected, but finding out what they did with that cash was not as easy.

Cy-Fair Independent School District said the funds are put into an "activity account with other revenue funds," and added that there is no direct accounting for how the cellphone fines are spent.

Local 2 got the same story from Pasadena, Klein and most of the middle and high schools in HISD. And the state code that allows schools to collect the money sets no restrictions on how the money is used.

Both Humble and Clear Creek Independent School Districts did have specific explanations for how that money was spent.

At Kingwood High School, the administration purchased flashlights and batteries and paid for two-way radio repairs. At Space Center Intermediate School, the fines helped buy school signs, banners and shirts.

Aldine Independent School District was the most difficult district to get answers from. When Local 2 asked for the information on Aug. 4, the district said it didn't know how much money each campus collected. Investigator Amy Davis questioned Superintendent Dr. Wanda Bamberg.

Davis: "So then you've never asked for an accounting for how much money they've collected?"

Bamberg: "No, we have not, because that money goes into the principal's fund."

Bamberg said she wanted Local 2 to pay the district $1,890 to get a complete accounting of how the money was spent.

Davis: "And you think that's reasonable?"

Bamberg: "If I'm going to have clerical people the week before school starts stop what they're doing and research this information for you, it is reasonable. Thank you so much for coming out tonight. We appreciate it."

We sorted the numbers provided to us and came up with the top five campuses that made the most money in fines.

Klein Oak High School came in at number five with $9772.25 collected last year.

Lanier Middle School in HISD brought in $10,403.00. HISD tells us none of the funds have been spent at Lanier. The principal of each school has the discretion of how to use the money. Number three is Klein Collins High School at $12, 931.00. Atascocita High pulled in $13, 357.00. Humble ISD tells Local 2, so far, the school has only spent $849 on 10 megaphones.

The school that collected the most money last year was HISD's Debakey High School for Health Professionals. Teachers there collected $14,745.00.
Some school districts, like Humble ISD, say the amount of fines collected will decrease this school year because teachers are allowing students to use smart phones in class more as part of instruction.

To see how your child's district handled the collection of fines, click on the links below for a breakdown of collection and expenses, and for written responses from several districts.

Statement from Conroe Independent School District:

"The total amount in fines collected by each Conroe ISD high school and middle school for cellphones and communications devices per the Texas Education Code 37.082 in the 2013-2014 school year -- I would like an amount for each campus. Only one CISD school collected fees for cellphone violations as a last resort and after consultation with parents -- the Woodlands College Park High School. For the 2013-2014 school year, they collected a total of $45.00. Accounting that shows how that money was spent broken down for each campus -- the money was deposited in the general student account and used for instructional purposes."

Statement from Katy ISD:

"Pursuant to your request for the information outlined, Katy ISD does not have responsive documents that relate to your request.  Katy ISD does not collect fines for cellphones or communication devices."

Explanation of fines:

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