LINCOLNSHIRE, Ill. — They finish their exams, step outside and pull out their cell phones to call for a ride home.
"Put them away! Put them away!" an administrator shouts as a half-dozen students quickly turn off their phones and stash them in their backpacks and pockets.
Cell phones are now allowed at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in suburban Chicago and a growing number of schools nationwide — but only sometimes. Some students complain the rules on phones and pagers, while better than an outright ban, don't always make sense.
At Stevenson, students are allowed to use them only after school finishes at 3:25 p.m. and on weekends. The rest of the time, they must keep them off and out of sight.
"What if exams finish earlier than that?" asks 15-year-old Karen Levy, who stands outside with a crowd of students ready to go home at 11:15 a.m. "It's not really fair."
Others are simply confused by the changes.
"I'm not in trouble, am I?" sophomore Neringa Eidimtaite asks after making a quick call to her father to ask for a ride home.
Administrators say they have to draw the line somewhere to keep phones from becoming a distraction. By relaxing the rules, they say they're acknowledging that cell phones are an everyday part of life.
"It was kind of silly," Stevenson superintendent Richard DuFour says of an old policy that forced school officials to punish students who were simply carrying a phone.
Colleen Conrad, a senior and president of the student council, was one of those students. She had to spend a day at "Saturday school" after she left her purse in the school cafeteria last September, only for administrators to find a cell phone in it.
"I've never gotten in trouble before," Conrad says, adding that she was upset, in part, because punishments were not consistent.
"Some people got in trouble and others didn't," she says.
She likes the new policy. But at least one expert believes relaxed rules are only likely to increase dilemmas over when to punish students who use phones during school hours.
"You're legislating chaos. It's a lot easier just to say, 'Don't bring them,"' says Kenneth Trump, president of Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.
Yet safety is a big reason many administrators — from Baltimore to Dallas — are reconsidering their ban on cell phones and pagers after Sept. 11 and the Columbine school massacre. Administrators say having a cell phone handy gives students and parents peace of mind.
But Trump says cell phones aren't necessarily security enhancers.
He says that having hundreds of students making calls at once can actually increase confusion or jam up phone lines during an emergency. And some students may use phones to cause trouble, phoning in bomb threats, for example.
Then there's simply the issue of distraction, as students sneak away to check their voicemail or send text messages back and forth via cell phone.
Regardless, legislators in Michigan and Indiana are reconsidering laws that ban cell phones and pagers on school campuses — measures originally aimed at curbing drug-dealing.
But other states are holding firm. Last month, a New Jersey appellate court upheld the constitutionality of a state law that bans elementary and secondary students from wearing pagers while on school property.
Students at Stevenson High School say they've seen some students breaking the new rules — using their phones in school bathrooms, for example. But they say phones that ring in classrooms more often belong to teachers.
As long as they're not using phones and pagers during class, students say they should be trusted to use good judgment.
"It's like the Internet — they wouldn't take away access to that," says Stevenson senior Darren Nasatir. "I e-mail my parents from school, and it's no big deal. Why should calling them be a big deal?"
On the Net:
National School Safety and Security Services www.schoolsecurity.org