Jennifer Henry recently experienced a textbook example of the debate over whether students should be using cell phones at school.
Henry, a communications specialist for the Francis Howell School District, said it happened on Oct. 21 when Hollenbeck Middle School had to be evacuated due to a bomb threat.
It turned out to be a false alarm, but students were evacuated while authorities searched the school building. Students went to Central Elementary School and Francis Howell Central High School. A 14-year-old was later turned over to juvenile authorities. Another threat occurred at the school on Oct. 23.
When they get worried, parents and students text, Tweet and call each other – with unintended consequences.
“The kids get (information) out quickly, they’re not interested in whether it’s accurate, they just reacting to what they see or rumors,” Henry said. “We want to make sure that we send out the right information.”
Most schools and school districts have the ability to notify parents quickly through a variety of ways. But kid’s fingers can be quicker.
“We had parents showing up before we could evacuate students,” Henry said.
Getting the message
Not getting the right information out can often be counterproductive in an emergency. Cell phone calls from students can be reassuring to parents, but they also can be needlessly upsetting.
Authorities at the scene may have to deal with anxious parents who have arrived while dealing with a crisis at hand.
But the issues surrounding student use of new and ever more convenient communications devices also raise other questions--not only in dealing with other aspects of emergency response, but also in how to properly integrate new technology into the classroom.
Limiting cell phone use
St. Charles County school districts restrict student use of cell phones at school in varying degrees. Francis Howell, Fort Zumwalt and St. Charles school districts are more restrictive than the Wentzville and Orchard Farm school districts.
Still, school officials concede their effectiveness at barring cell phones or even having them turned off during class time may be about as effective as federal agents barring alcohol distribution during Prohibition.
“We allow them (students) to bring them, we don’t allow them to use them,” said Bernard DuBray, superintendent of .
Cell phones “may not be used or visible during the instructional school day,” the district’s policy states. The district “strongly discourages students from brining cell phones and portable communications devices to school.”
DuBray and other school officials say giving students free rein in using cell phones wouldn’t work. “It’s just too disruptive and it can lead to cheating on tests and other issues,” DuBray said.
If there is an emergency involving a student, it can be addressed by a call from or to the individual school where staff are available to help, he said.
Winston Rogers, principal of in the said perhaps 80 percent of students have cell phones. Rogers said older adults tend to use cell phones as a tool. It’s different for students.
”For kids, it’s a way of life,” Rogers said. “And you can’t pull that back.”
The cell phone policy in the Wentzville School District changed in the last year. Now high school students can use them before and after school and during their lunch break or at the discretion of their classroom teacher. Similar but stricter rules apply to middle and elementary school students.
The change seems to be working well, with disciplinary actions involving the use of cell phones down. “We’re going to have to recognize the fact that they (cell phones) are here to stay,” he said.
Help or hindrance?
In September, Some parents kept in touch with their children who happened to have phones with them in the classroom. But few of the students really knew what was happening at the time.
While cell phones are accepted as a reality, emergency responders and security officials still have qualms about their use by students in school. School officials concede the concerns are real. Cell phones do pose a safety threat in some crisis situations, they say.
“Without a doubt they are,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based, private consulting firm that works with schools in 45 states on security issues and emergency response planning.
Trump generally opposes allowing or encouraging students in school to have cell phones unless they are tightly controlled and used in educational situations.
“Many school districts are caving into parental pressure,” he said.
Cell phone use in an emergency can alarm parents to the point that they show up at the scene at the same time fire or police may be trying to evacuate or deal with a crisis situation.
“Cell phones are a hindrance to emergency responders,” he said.
Students, parents and others rushing to make calls or get messages out can overload or bog down a cell phone system and render it useless, he said.
Cell phones also can be used to call in bomb and other threats and are difficult to trace, he said.
All of these issues require that schools have a formal and well developed emergency crisis plan, Trump and local school district officials agree. Part of that plan is making sure the school has open lines of communication with parents.
Along with email and other notifications, Henry said Francis Howell is installing a rapid notification system. It is on the few area school districts that doesn’t have one.
Trump said one idea may be explaining to students that adults and school officials are in charge during emergencies and take the lead in communicating information.
“The key part (of the district’s policy) is non-academic electronic devices,” Henry said. “Because technology is becoming so integrated into our curriculum, students are now being allowed to bring their own technology to use in class for academic purposes.”
Randal Charles, superintendent of the St. Charles School District, said schools can configure devices to limit their access to the Internet and inappropriate content. But he acknowledges that cell phones and communications policies may have to change.
“It has evolved and will continue to evolve,” he said.
Still, the day when the communications revolution has free rein in kindergarten through 12th grade hasn’t arrived.
“I don’t think we’re really there yet,” DuBray said.