Cell Phone and Pager Blues

Many schools have developed policies that prohibit students from carrying cellular phones and pagers while at school. However, many have begun to question the wisdom of these policies in light of the events of September 11. Some feel that the negative aspects of students having these devices at school are outweighed by the possibility that students might find it necessary to use cellular phones to call for help during a crisis such as a shooting, bombing, natural disaster or other catastrophic event at school. In addition, many school officials report that they have difficulty enforcing policies designed to regulate student possession of these very popular devices.

While there is merit to each of these points, careful consideration should be given before abandoning these policies. There are definite safety concerns regarding student possession of pagers and cellular phones while attending classes. Most policies banning these devices were developed due to concerns of classroom disruption, as well as communications between gang members and drug dealers during school hours. These are all also valid concerns. In several cases in just one public school district, gang members sent coded pages instructing other members who were in school to kill rival gang members. There have been many instances of communications relating to drug sales on campus being transmitted via pager and cell phone. And anyone who has attended professional seminars in recent years has experienced the distraction of adults who forget to set their beepers and cell phones on silent mode. If adults have so much trouble remembering to respect their peers and presenters, can we expect better results from students?

But there are far more pressing reasons to be concerned with pagers and even more so with cellular phones among students. The most compelling reason is that when schools allow students to carry these devices, they typically encounter greater difficulty in managing critical incidents on campus. In one case, a high school principal decided not to enforce his district’s policy on electronic communication devices significant disruption resulted when a series of bomb threats were called in for his school. Each time a bomb threat occurred, students began to call parents en masse. Many of the students exacerbated the situation and hundreds of panicked parents rushed to the school blocking all streets leading to the facility. In another instance, a number of people drove across the campus grounds during the confusion endangering students and staff. Moreover, in one case, students called local television stations and falsely reported that a bomb had actually detonated, resulting in the appearance of news helicopters over the school and much adverse publicity and further panic. There were also indications that several of the bomb threats may have been called in by students at the school using their cell phones. The confusion caused by student use of cellular phones during a major incident can make it difficult, if not impossible to effectively manage the crisis.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms reported that more than 60 actual explosive devices were placed in U.S. schools from 1998 to 2001; this aspect cannot be taken too lightly. Some explosive devices can be detonated by the cumulative radio frequency (RF) energy from the use of numerous cellular phones during a bomb threat or bombing incident. Though it is unusual for radio detonation devices to be used by bombers, it does happen.

Some advocate that students should be allowed to carry cellular phones because of situations like the Columbine shooting and bombing attack. I had the opportunity to participate in a live remote television interview with personnel from several tactical teams who responded to the incident on Law Enforcement Television Network. They made repeated reference to the confusion caused by erroneous information that was called into the 911 center during the incident. Another concern was that many students called the media and gave away their hiding places on live national television when it was still not known whether the aggressors were still in the building with access to television. In one school shooting incident last year, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) refused to enter the campus until police arrived because the caller was a student, and they were concerned that they were being set up for an ambush. While they were criticized for their actions, such concerns cannot be dismissed in light of the types of school incidents that we have seen in recent years. In fact, EMTs in the Atlanta area were repeatedly shot at by a sniper when they responded to his fraudulent calls, until he was finally shot and killed by police.

Fortunately, while effort is required to enforce student possession of these devices, there are many schools that have been quite successful in keeping them out of the classroom. For example, one district of more than 25,000 students found very few of the devices during surprise random metal detection checks after a policy requiring a $25 recovery fee was implemented.

While there will assuredly be scenarios where a cellular phone would prove to be valuable to students in a major crisis at a school, the more common situation has been that they have been a significant impediment to critical incident management. If the topic of allowing students to carry these devices becomes an issue in your community, weigh the pros and cons carefully before taking either path.

Michael S. Dorn has been a full-time campus safety practitioner for 23 years. He has authored 14 books, lectures frequently across the nation and has provided consultation and technical assistance to more than 2,000 public safety agencies and learning institutions worldwide. He can be reached at .

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.