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SCHOOLS, HOUNDED BY PUPILS' CYBERPETS, UNLEASH BAN ON LATEST CRAZE

The hottest cybertoy around is going to school, and it's driving more than a few teachers and school officials . . . well . . . virtually crazy.

Tamagotchis, the tiny computer toy "pets" that youngsters wear as lockets or attached to key chains, are showing up in area classrooms, carried mostly by elementary and middle-school pupils who can't stand to part with the $15-or-so gadgets.

Just ask educators at Grand Island Middle School. Fed-up with the beeping cyberpets, Principal Bruce Benson last week banned Tamagotchis and the many look-alike toys they've inspired, such as Nano Babies, from school grounds.

The toys had gone off around school on occasion. But the final straw came when a cyberpet called Pet Vet starting beeping in a hallway locker, he said.

Benson and a custodian made a hasty search for the cyberpet's owner before they could bring relative quiet to the halls again.

"It's just generally distracting to everybody," he said.

It also wasted about 20 minutes, he added.

First sold in Japan, Tamagotchis and other look-alike pets are small electronic games, the point of which is for youngsters to learn responsibility by taking care of them. This includes feeding, playing, disciplining and even remembering to pick up digital pet droppings.

The toys usually have a life span of 10 to 18 days. Negligence can cause premature virtual death, although each toy has a reset button.

Teachers in several local school districts, such as Williamsville, have been grousing more and more about the toys, saying some pupils would rather tend to their cyberpets than their studies.

What's equally troublesome, though, is what happens if they don't tend to the needs of their young cyber charges. The toys beep -- and beep and beep -- until their virtual needs are met.

The disruptive potential of the toys has prompted classroom bans in other countries, including China, Australia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Taiwan and New Zealand.

An elementary school in California followed suit not long ago, as did officials from a school in Connecticut, where students were sneaking into bathrooms to tend to their cyberpets.

Not surprisingly, youngsters are not particularly happy with the cyberpet bans.

"They don't like it," said Katie Harlow, a fourth-grader at Smallwood Elementary School in Amherst, where Principal Barbara Marotto instituted a ban the first week of school because she saw so many youngsters caring for pets instead of paying attention to class work.

Katie, who has a Tamagotchi and a Giga Pet look-alike, said some youngsters are so devoted to virtual pets because their parents won't let them have real ones.

"It's fun to raise them," she said.

Some educators are hoping that the cyberpet craze will simply die down. After all, before Tamagotchi's, Beanie Babies were the hot toy -- and youngsters brought them into class too, sometimes with disruptive consequences.

"Some of these students would be carrying 10, 15 of them," said Benson. "One is never enough."

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