Sticky fingers favor teens’ iPods, phones

By Rachael Scarborough King, Register Staff
May 16, 2008

You know that sinking feeling: One minute the expensive electronic device you use every day is in your pocket or handbag, and the next it’s nowhere to be found.

The experience is apparently a common one for the region’s high school students. School administrators said that they frequently field complaints about missing iPods and cell phones, which have become a part of teenagers’ daily lives.

West Haven High School Principal Ronald Stancil said he and the two school resource officers hear about missing or stolen electronics about once a week.

“Unfortunately, some kids that bring them to school don’t realize how valuable they are,” he said. “It’s amazing how those things will grow legs and walk.”

Stancil estimated that at least half of West Haven’s students have cell phones, and about 25 percent have mp3 music players.

The Apple iPod, which started the trend for portable mp3 players, is a common target of theft. At least two iPods were reported missing at Guilford High School in the past two weeks, according to Guilford police records. Two students said their devices had been stolen, but one was later found in a hallway.

As cell phones, mp3 players and digital cameras have filled students’ bookbags, administrators and school resource officers have seen an increase in thefts.

Officials said the problem has existed for several years, since the proliferation of small electronics, but some schools are now doing more to combat it.

This year, Guilford High School introduced a system where students can register their iPods with School Resource Officer Scott Gardner. Dean Eric Spencer said about 60 students have registered, and so far the school has seen a slight drop in reported thefts, from 16 last year to 10 this year.

“All in all, things have improved,” Spencer said. “We hope it’s going to get better as we continue to monitor the iPods.”

The music- and video-playing devices, which have been around since 2001, now range in price from $49 for a device the size of a matchbook to $499 for one that holds thousands of songs and can connect to the Internet.

The iPods and other mp3 players can be personalized with engraving, allowing buyers to etch their names onto the device, which law enforcement and school officials pointed to as one theft deterrent.

“That’s the best bet when you’re talking about small things, untraceable things,” Guilford Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Hutchinson said. “It’s like a ring or money or a watch — they’re a dime a dozen, so to identify it readily as yours is difficult.”

Spencer said the school does not usually see thefts other than cell phones and mp3 players.

Hand High School Assistant Principal Fran Thompson said the school internally investigates complaints of theft, which occur a few times a year. Any student caught stealing faces a suspension, a police referral and restitution of the cost of the item.

“I think most kids have them. We have a lot of kids who ride the bus and might listen to them; we have a lot of kids who do athletics and when they’re warming up they may put the headphones on to run,” Thompson said. “I just think they are aware of how much they cost and the importance of keeping your valuables in a safe location or keeping your bookbag with you, but sometimes you learn by experience, too.”

Most schools have developed policies dealing with the use of cell phones and other electronics during the school day. Thompson said students are allowed to have phones and other devices on them in case they need to contact their parents, but they are not permitted to use them during school hours.

“If they have them on, the teachers take them and bring them to the office and the kids don’t get them ’til the end of the day,” he said. Many schools have similar policies.

Stancil said that the iPod’s similarity in appearance and small size make it very difficult for administrators to track down any that go missing. Students often ask him to look through the security footage from the school’s closed-circuit cameras, but the resolution on the tapes is usually not high enough to pick up the devices.

He and other administrators said that they would prefer students not bring the items to school.

“We do the best we can, but we very rarely find them because they’re so small,” Stancil said. “I think every school had an iPod theft this month — no one’s immune.”

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