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Is It Safe to Allow Cell Phones in School?

If you can’t say no to cell phones, start beefing up your emergency crisis plans.

Cell phones were banned from most schools years ago, but after the Columbine High School and 9/11 tragedies, parents started pressuring some school boards and administrators to reverse the bans. On its surface, allowing students to have cell phones under the guise of improved school safety may seem like a “no-brainer” to many board members and administrators. But an in-depth analysis suggests that while students having cell phones may make parents feel better, it actually could create a less safe situation in a school crisis.

The Discipline Challenges

On a daily basis, cell phones pose a disruption to the educational environment. Students cannot fully benefit from classroom instruction if they are distracted by incoming text messages and vibrations from incoming calls. And using cell phones for cheating is a big concern. Cameras on cell phones can be used to photograph portions of tests.

Administrators also worry about cell phone cameras being used to take and spread inappropriate photographs of students in restrooms and locker rooms. And cyberbullying presents a similar new challenge to school discipline.

Some parents wait, while others call to get information about their children after a Coral Gables (Fla.) High School student was stabbed to death and another taken into custody this past September.

A growing number of cell phone videos of real and staged fights among youths, including those occurring on school grounds, are online. School bus drivers tell of incidents of friends, family members and gang members awaiting the arrival of buses at their afternoon drop-off sites in response to text messages sent by students during conflicts on the buses.

Cell phones have also been used to call in bomb threats. In one Virginia community, the caller used discount store “throwaway” cell phones that could not be traced to make two bomb threat calls to police about the city’s largest high school.

Impeding First Responders

Many parents and some school officials see no potential harm in students having cell phones in a school crisis—at least until the crisis actually occurs. During a crisis, such as a school shooting, students need to take direction from adults. School leaders may need to lock down or evacuate the building. And students who are calling or texting on cell phones during a crisis can easily miss life-saving directions. Students can also accelerate rumors on their phones by spreading inaccurate information to parents, other students and the media.

In addition, students texting and calling parents in a crisis can encourage parents to flock to the school. Unfortunately, increased vehicle traffic on and around campus can impede first responder vehicles from entering and exiting the school. And a plethora of parents arriving on campus can overwhelm school crisis team parent-student reunification processes and can hinder effective lockdowns or evacuations in an emergency.

It is also possible for cell phone systems to be overloaded. Several school resource officers (SROs) have reported difficulties in using their own cell phones on campus during evacuations because of system overloads by students, parents and others making calls at the same time. One South Carolina SRO said his cell phone failed multiple times during a school evacuation due to the number of students making calls on their phones.

In recent years, school administrators have been challenged by rumors threatening violence spread by cell phone calls and text messages as much, if not more, than actual incidents. Numerous administrators have dismissed school early, closed for one or more days, and spent countless time and energy managing community reactions to wildfire rumors that have little credibility or substance. During the 2007-2008 school year, we tallied over two dozen incidents where schools were locked down, students were sent home early, or schools were closed after receiving calls containing rumors and vague, generic threats.

The Columbine and 9/11 Backlash

Following the Columbine and 9/11 tragedies, various school boards reversed cell phone bans and/or loosened rules governing student use of cell phones on campus. Some openly allowed phones, while others took a “don’t ask, don’t tell” posture. Still others decided to allow cell phones but to tell students to use them during limited times or not at all.

But this trend appears to be reversing. The administrative and safety disruptions posed by cell phones are causing board members and administrators to revisit cell phone policies, often leading to more rules and prohibitions.

While we believe it is best to prohibit students from having cell phones on campus, the horse is out of the barn in many school communities. Even those districts banning cell phones and aggressively enforcing the bans face an uphill challenge with compliance. Parental and student convenience tend to be the strongest reasons to allow students to have cell phones in school, and some district leaders can’t tell parents no.

We advise school leaders to thoroughly analyze and discuss the downside of cell phones related to school safety issues. We also strongly advise them to have exceptionally strong emergency response and crisis communications plans to counter the negative impact cell phones have on real crises and rumors. The question is no longer whether cell phones will add challenges to school crisis management, but instead how strong their impact will be in each situation.

Kenneth S. Trump, MPA, is president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based national school safety and crisis-preparedness consulting firm.