Classroom Technology

School Shootings Are Fueling the Debate Over Cellphones in Class

By Alyson Klein — June 16, 2022 7 min read
Emergency and urgency, dialing 911 on smartphone screen.
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More than a decade after a 17-year-old shot his ex-girlfriend and himself right outside the Michigan high school where Sarah Pancost teaches, she is still grateful that the students she hunkered down with that day had access to their cellphones.

She recalls being shut in a classroom, not knowing exactly what was going on. Local news quickly jumped on the story, soon jamming up the traditional lines of communication.

“Immediately, our switchboard collapsed because parents were calling in,” said Pancost. “It was absolutely terrifying. … We couldn’t even really communicate with our central administration in our own building.”

Pancost allowed students to pull out their phones and reassure their families, who in turn, filled kids in on what was being reported about the incident.

These days, Pancost’s students use their phones in class primarily for learning. But Pancost has never forgotten how important the devices were in an emergency.

“It would be really hard for me if I was told kids [couldn’t] have their cellphones anywhere” in school, she said.

For Pancost—who ever since that shooting has always kept her own phone by her side during the school day—the device is an important safety tool.

But plenty of educators who feel that cellphones are inappropriate in schools also cite safety concerns as a primary reason.

When students are on their phones during a potential emergency, they may not be paying attention to safety protocols, they say. The technology can jam up communication, get in the way of response plans, pass along misinformation, or blow minor incidents way out of proportion.

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School leaders at Ashland Middle School in southern Oregon—which has a no cellphones during the school day policy—have worked with local law enforcement on an emergency plan.

Police officers “really encourage us to make sure that our students know that if there was some sort of catastrophic event, we would need people to stay off their cellphones,” said Katherine Holden, the associate principal. “They don’t want us thinking that our students should be calling or trying to communicate with their parents at that moment. They really want students to be listening to adults and following directions, and to be very present.”

With school safety, there are few absolutes

Parents have pushed back on those rules, in part, because they want to be able to reach their children to coordinate transportation or share family information. In response, Holden and her colleagues remind them that they can call the main office and leave a message for their child. And kids can use landline phones in classrooms to contact parents, with teacher permission. (At some schools with no-cellphone policies, including Ashland, students aren’t allowed to use their devices during the school day but can store them in their lockers or somewhere else on site.)

Ashland Middle’s approach generally seems to be right one, said Shawna White, the senior lead for school safety at WestEd, a nonprofit research and consulting organization that works on education and other issues.

“The use of cellphones on the part of students has more potential to be disruptive to the crisis-response team than it does to benefit” them, she said. Sending text messages can be a big distraction when students need to be paying close attention to adults and following a safety plan, she said.

And if students are hiding from an active shooter, the dinging of a text message or ringing of a phone might give away their location, she added.

While kids may want to use their phones to reassure parents that they are OK, their calls may spur their families to clog up law enforcement phone lines, or drive to the school to pick up their child, potentially putting themselves in harm’s way or creating a traffic jam that could interfere with police efforts.

To be sure, there are times when cellphones could arguably be a good school safety tool, White added. They may be the best way for students to anonymously report a threat they’ve seen or overheard, for instance.

What’s more, it’s hard to hold on to any kind of orthodoxy or absolute when it comes to school shootings, White said. For instance, experts have recommended that classroom doors lock on the inside, to keep kids safe from a potential shooter. But inside locks may have hindered the response to last month’s shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and kept students stuck in a room with the shooter, White said.

“It’s hard for me to say ‘oh, [cellphones] are good or they’re bad because different situations are going to call for different responses,” White said. But, she added, “looking at it holistically, I see potential for [phones] to create confusion and chaos and distraction.”

Dealing with real versus vague threats

When it comes to the debate over whether cellphones are a proper safety tool, there are plenty of instances that educators on both sides of the debate can point to make their case.

On the one hand, there’s Pancost’s story, in which the shooter died but the victim survived. On the other, there’s Marisa Monteverde, who will never forget the day parents showed up at the central Florida private high school where she used to teach, begging to pull their kids out of class because of what turned out to be a nonexistent emergency.

School leaders had gotten wind of a vague threat. To be on the safe side, they called local law enforcement and told teachers to shut their classroom blinds. Monteverde knew that specific safety protocols hadn’t been activated, so she wasn’t overly worried, and tried to reassure her students.

But the kids sent anxious texts to their parents— in part, Monteverde suspects, because some saw a ticket out of class.

“I was like, don’t make your parents scared for no reason,” Monteverde said. “I’m still teaching, you don’t need to leave.” She’s relieved that the middle school where she now teaches has a strict no phones allowed in class policy.

Monteverde’s experience is familiar to White. Students might not have a clear idea of what’s actually going on in a given situation and may give wrong information to their parents, who then pass those inaccuracies on to first responders.

“It’s like playing a game of telephone, literally,” she said. “It has the potential to create more misunderstanding,” and could interfere with schools’ carefully considered emergency response plans.

Students’ mental health is a safety consideration, too

Educators’ views of cellphones as safety tools are often wrapped up in their perspective on cellphones in schools, period, given the longstanding debate about whether the devices should be encouraged for learning or banned because of the distractions they cause.

Nicole Clemens’ daughter is a student at the same central Missouri high school where she teaches English. Being in the same building would seem to cut down on the need for a cellphone, but Clemens loved that her daughter is just a quick text away—in the event of an emergency, or just to organize the family schedule.

Apart from safety, Clemens—who encourages her students to use their phones to take notes and complete assignments—believes kids needs to learn how to use the devices responsibly because they’ve become so essential to modern life.

“There are so many teachers who are anti-cellphone, and I just think that that ship has sailed,” she said. “You don’t have to like them, but you do have to figure out how to coexist with them.”

But Lee Carlson, a teacher at Windom High School in southwestern Minnesota, thinks cellphones harm student mental health, ultimately making school less safe.

Carlson, who has been in the profession for more than three decades, said that he’s seen increasingly serious emotional problems in his students, which he attributes to “cyberbullying and the pressures from social media,” he said.

“Even if they put their phone down, some other kid may be sticking it right in front of them and say ‘hey, look at this.’ It’s really hard for them to get away.”

The cellphone and safety question is one of those problems in K-12 education where there aren’t easy answers, people on both sides of the debate say.

For Ryan Silva, the principal of Cherry Creek High School in the Denver suburbs, “cellphones are an asset” when it comes to school safety, in part because they allow kids to share information with their parents. That way, when an incident occurs—say a partial campus lockdown, because of a bank robbery in the area— students can explain the situation to their families, cutting the number of parent calls to Silva from “thousands” to “dozens,” he said.

Though the system works for his school, it’s easy to see why a different leader would go another way, Silva said.

“I feel very good about what I do from my place, and I trust other leaders to make those same decisions,” he said.

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