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Posted at 8:30 AM ET, 05/14/2010

Kids, cellphones, schools and safety

By Valerie Strauss

Teachers complain that cellphones distract kids in class, make it too easy for kids to sext during school hours, and serve as a convenient tool for committing other kinds of mayhem.

Kids and some parents argue that cellphones serve as their time keepers, a connection to their parents and even as an occasional educational device, allowing them to take pictures of notes or classroom materials, doing research on the Internet, and more.

Who's right?

Both sides have merit, actually. But the merit isn’t really equal.

Call me a Luddite (and many of you will), but I’m not convinced that kids really need their cellphones during school hours. If parents need to get in touch with their kids, they can call the school office. I have seen firsthand how distracting they can be in class -- even when teachers don’t actually see the kids texting each other under the desk. In fact, kids can text each other with a ring tone that most adults can’t here but kids can.

If you don’t believe me, read this about the Mosquito ringtone.

In the absence of a consensus about the right approach, school districts around the country are constantly reviewing their cellphone policies. Montgomery County this year relaxed its policy, while Prince George’s County is poised to adopt a strict policy that requires kids to leave their phones turned off and in their lockers all day.

One issue that I hear a lot is about safety: Kids need to have phones, especially in the nation’s capital, in case there is a security emergency. I had some sympathy for that position until I read the recommendations of National School Safety and Security Services, a private Cleveland-based, national school safety consulting firm. These pretty much shatter the kids-need-a-cellphone-for-an-emergency argument.

1. Cellphones 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 cellphones could potentially detonate a real bomb if one is actually on campus.

3. Cellphone use by students can hamper rumor control and, in doing so, disrupt and delay effective public safety personnel response.

4. Cellphone 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. Cellphone systems typically overload during a real major crisis (as they did during the Columbine tragedy and World Trade Center attacks) and usage by a large number of students at once could add to the overload and knock out cellphone systems quicker than may normally occur. Since cellphones 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.

Does this make me a Luddite, as my children think?

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 14, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
Tags:  ban on cellphones, cellphones and schools, cellphones in school, do kids need cellphones in school  
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I'm with you on the lack of need for cell phones (you also neglected to mention that cell phones facilitate large scale, riot-like fights)...

But banning cell phones in schools is not enforcable... they can't even manage to stamp out cell phones in prisons.

Posted by: someguy100 | May 14, 2010 9:50 AM | Report abuse

You are right about this. Cell phones are a huge distraction in classes. We all need to resist this constant worry that "there might be an emergency." If there is one, we will deal with it. Furthermore, there are so many opportunities for misuse, from the texting in class to snapping pictures of people in the gym locker room, etc. Yes, it will be hard to enforce. But if teachers confiscate phones (and the administration backs them up when dealing with irate parents), the students will learn to keep the phones at home or locked up during school.

Posted by: drl97 | May 14, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

It's not so simple as "just confiscate it". What do you do when they refuse, or curse you out? Now you've taken a 5 second distration and turned it into a 5 minute distraction, that now involves security and suspensions. And what do you do with the phones? What if a phone is stolen or damaged while in a teacher's possession? This isn't the same thing as taking away bubble gum and stinkbombs.

(Personally, I think that schools should have FCC permission to use cell phone jamming devices)

Posted by: someguy100 | May 14, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Actually, "cell phones are a huge distraction" EVERYWHERE. And if some phone company would put out a phone that could only be used for getting or receiving calls (and maybe one that the student had to actually remember the friend's number to use), a lot of the use would vanish.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | May 14, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse

Regarding problems with confiscating phones: If a student curses at a teacher and is belligerent, then yes - call security and suspend that student. When did adults become so afraid of children? After seeing this a couple of times, students will learn to follow the rules. The teacher can have a locked drawer. If the phone is stolen from the teacher's possession, too bad. The students should leave the phones at home.

Posted by: drl97 | May 14, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

I tend to think it’s a personal decision when a parent chooses to get their child a cell phone. We can’t judge anyone unless we're walking in their shoes. There is a service out there called kajeet that allows parents lots of control over the use of their kids cell phones. You can have it not receive or make calls and texts during very specific hours (like school) except to certain numbers and 911. We can give our children more responsibility and still remain in control of some of their freedoms!

Posted by: kajeetmst | May 19, 2010 3:22 PM | Report abuse

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