Cell Phones and Text Messaging in Schools

National School Safety and Security Services has received a number of inquiries after school shootings over the years asking if schools should allow and/or encourage students to carry cell phones in school as a tool for their safety during a school shooting or other crisis. Similar inquiries were received after the Columbine High School attack in 1999 and the September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. We set forth on this page a look at the historical perspective of cell phones in schools, a detailed explanation of how they can detract from safety in a crisis, and recommendations for addressing the current day reality of cell phones and other technology being a part of today’s students’ lives and how schools must adapt realistically.

Historical Perspectives

For more than a decade we opposed policies allowing or encouraging students to have cell phones in school. On a day-to-day basis, they are disruptive to the educational environment. This also has been the general position of many school districts over the years. Changing policies under the guise of cell phones being a crisis tool for student safety for a very long time was, in our opinion, driven more by parental and student convenience issues than safety.

Some schools banned pagers and cell phones starting a decade ago because of their connection to drug and gang activity, as well as due to the disruption to classes. The focus on their disruption of the educational process has come into conflict, though, with the reality of cell phones becoming a common convenience item and part of everyone’s daily life.  However, parents have increasingly lobbied boards to change policies primarily based on the argument that phones will make students and schools safer in light of national tragedies, and we believe there needs to be a clear understanding of how cell phone use during a tragedy can detract from school safety and create a less safe environment.

Times evolve, however, and technology certainly evolves. Cell phones, I-pads, digital gaming, and other technology is being integrated into the day-to-day learning experience of many students in schools across the nation. The methods in which they communicate (email, texting, instant messaging, etc.) and the tools to do so are readily available in so many forms. Having technology in schools as instructional tools, and believing one can simultaneously eliminate the ability of students to communicate electronically with each other and the outside community, appears to be increasingly unrealistic thinking. So our thoughts on cell phones in schools must adapt to the times.

But first let’s look at the climate, safety, and crisis angles…

Cell Phones Disruptive of School Environment

From an educational perspective, cell phone use during classes and in other areas of the school can easily present a disruption to the educational environment on a day-to-day basis.

School disruptions can come in a number of forms. Ringing cell phones can disrupt classes and distract students who should be paying attention to their lessons at hand. Text message has been used for cheating. And new cell phones with cameras could be used to take photos of exams, take pictures of students changing clothes in gym locker areas, and so on.

Cell Phone Use During a Crisis Can Create Less Safe School Emergency Response

In terms of school safety, cell phones have been used by students in a number of cases nationwide for calling in bomb threats to schools. In far too many cases, these threats have been difficult or impossible to trace since they have been made by cell phones. The use of cell phones by students during a bomb threat, and specifically in the presence of an actual explosive device, also may present some risk for potentially detonating the device as public safety officials typically advise school officials not to use cell phones, two-way radios, or similar communications devices during such threats.

Additionally, experience in crisis management has shown us that regular school telephone systems become overloaded with calls in times of a crisis. While we do recommend cell phones for school administrators and crisis team members as a crisis management resource tool, it is highly probable that hundreds (if not thousands) of students rushing to use their cell phones in a crisis would also overload the cell phone system and render it useless. Therefore the use of cell phones by students could conceivably decrease, not increase, school safety during a crisis.

Cell phone use, texting, and other outside communications by students during a crisis also expedites parental flocking to the school at a time when school and public safety officials may need parents to be away from the school site due to evacuations, emergency response, and/or other tactical or safety reasons. This could also actually delay or otherwise hinder timely and efficient parent-student reunification. In extreme situations, it could thrust parents into a zone of potential harm.

Cell phone use also accelerates the unintentional (and potentially intentional) spread of misinformation, rumors, and fear.

Cell Phones and Text Messaging in Schools Contribute to School Rumors and Fear

We also track more and more school incidents across the nation where rumors have disrupted schools and have even resulted in decreased attendance due to fears of rumored violence. The issues of text messaging in particular, and cell phones in general, were credited with sometimes creating more anxiety and panic than any actual threats or incidents that may have triggered the rumors.

“We are now dealing with ‘Generation Text’ instead of ‘Generation X’,” said Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services.  “The rumors typically become greater than the issue, problem, or incident itself.  Attendance can go down overnight and rumors can fly in minutes,” he noted.
Ken’s advice to school and safety officials includes:
1) Anticipate you will have an issue that catches fire like this at some time.  Identify ahead of time what mechanisms you will use to counter it. 
2) Have redundancy in communications:  Web site, direct communications to students and staff, mass parent notifications, letters to go home, etc.
3) Discuss some potential scenarios with your district and building administrators and crisis teams to evaluate what the threshold will be for going full speed on your response communications.  If you go full speed on every single rumor, you might need two full-time employees just to counter rumors in one average secondary school.  Try to get a feel for at what point a situation might rise to the level of being so disruptive or distractive that it warrants a full-fledged communications counter assault by school and police officials.
4) School and police officials should have unified communications so as to send consistent messages.  We train in our emergency preparedness programs for the use of joint information centers (JICs) in a major critical incident response. But even on lower scale incidents, it is important for school leaders to be sending a message consistent with that of public safety officials to their school-communities.
5) Have a formal crisis communications plan and professionally train your administrators and crisis team members on communicating effectively with media and parents.  Professional outside communications consultants, district communications staff (for those with such in-house resources), and related specialists can help develop and audit communications plans, and train staff.
The key is to be prepared to fight fire with fire. Today’s high-tech world and rapid communications must be countered by school officials who have a solid communications plan for managing rapidly escalating rumors around school safety issues,” Trump said.
For examples of specific incidents of rumors, many of which were driven by student use of cell phones, see School Threats and Rumors.

Cell Phones and Other Technology As Instructional Tools

As noted earlier above, times evolve and technology use certainly evolves with them. Cell phones, I-pads, digital gaming, and other technology is being integrated into the day-to-day learning experience of many students in schools across the nation. We have seen exceptionally impressive engaged learning in schools with one-to-one technology where kids from kindergarten grade on up have I-pads or laptop computers. One superintendent commented that in his more than 40 years in education, he has never seen kids so engaged in learning.The methods in which they communicate (email, texting, instant messaging, etc.) and the tools to do so are readily available in so many forms. Having technology in schools as instructional tools, and believing one can simultaneously eliminate the ability of students to communicate electronically with each other and the outside community, appears to be increasingly unrealistic thinking. We must therefore provide more time-relevant recommendations than in the past where simply recommending a ban on devices was realistic and practical.

Cell Phone Policies and Practices in Schools Must Meet the Times But Be Clear and Enforced; Emergency Guidelines and Crisis Communications Plans Must Be Strong

School boards and administrators have the final say in whether cell phones are or are not banned in their schools. We respect local control and their right to make these decisions. If a school district chooses to ban cell phones, we support that as we support those districts choosing to allow students to have cell phones in schools.

We do believe, however, that school leaders must make a firm decision, set it in written policy, implement it consistently, and communicate expectations to students, parents, and school employees. Equally important is that they enforce their policies in a firm, fair, and consistent manner for the long haul. Saying in writing that the district bans cell phones but in practice allowing them or having a “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice day-to-day is unacceptable.

School administrators allowing students to possess and/or in some fashion use cell phones in schools and/or on school property must provide clear guidelines and expectations to students and parents. They must enforce them consistently.

From a safety, security, and emergency / crisis preparedness perspective, school boards, administrators, crisis teams, and public safety officials must have a detailed conversation on the impact of cell phones on day-to-day school climate, their potential adverse impact on security, and their high-risk for detracting from efficient school emergency response and management in a critical incident. We now strongly encourage school districts to have crisis communications plans to manage and respond in a timely manner to rumors and to communicate on security incidents and in crises. We also advise school and safety officials to develop their emergency plans with the expectation that cell phone use in a criticial incident will accelerate rumors, expedite parental and other flocking to the school, create traffic and human movement management problems, potentially hinder efficient parent-student reunification processes, etc.  In short, school and safety officials must “double-down” on their planning and preparedness for issues likely to be created by cell phone use during a crisis.

School leaders should talk with students, parents, and staff about their expectations regarding cell phone use during a crisis. There should be candid discussions of how cell phone use can hurt school and first responder efforts to keep students and staff safe during an emergency. And students, parents, and staff should be told how responsible use and non-use during a crisis can help make the situation more safe and less risky than irresponsible use and use at critical times when attention should be given fully to receiving directions from those responsible for keeping everyone safe.

School leaders should maintain an adequate number of cell phones on campus for administrators, crisis team members, and other appropriate adults. School and safety officials should seek to provide such equipment as a part of their crisis planning. Additionally, while not necessarily advocating that schools provide cell phones to teachers, we do believe that school policies should allow teachers and support staff to carry their cell phones if they choose to do so.

Concluding Thoughts

Technology evolves. Society evolves. And so must our thinking on the role of technology, cell phones and other technology in schools. Regardless of whether or not school leaders formally allow or prohibit student cell phones on campus, they must have preparedness plans designed upon the assumption that at least some students will have and use cell phones during a crisis situation. Emergency preparedness guidelines and crisis communications plans must be in place to respond to and manage such conditions.

How Cell Phones Can Detract From School Safety & Crisis Preparedness

  1. Cell phones have been used for calling in bomb threats to schools and, in many communities, cell calls cannot be traced by public safety officials.
  2. Student use of cell phones could potentially detonate a real bomb if one is actually on campus.
  3. Cell phone use by students can hamper rumor control and, in doing so, disrupt and delay effective public safety personnel response.
  4. Cell phone use by students can impede public safety response by accelerating parental response to the scene of an emergency during times when officials may be attempting to evacuate students to another site.
  5. Cell phone systems typically overload during a real major crisis (as they did during the Columbine tragedy, WTC attacks, etc.), and usage by a large number of students at once could add to the overload and knock out cell phone systems quicker than may normally occur. Since cell phones may be a backup communications tool for school administrators and crisis teams, widespread student use in a crisis could thus eliminate crisis team emergency communications tools in a very short period of critical time.