Cell Phones and School Safety


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 decades ago after the Columbine High School attack in 1999 and the September 2001 terrorist attacks on America. These inquiries and conversations continue today.

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 on cell phones and school safety

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 (when they first came out) and then cell phones many 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 came into conflict, though, with the reality of cell phones becoming a common convenience item and part of everyone’s daily life.  However, parents increasingly lobbied school 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 potentially create a less safe environment.

Times evolve, however, and technology certainly evolves with time. Smart phones, iPads, 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.

Overall thinking by school leaders about cell phones in schools has adapted, fluctuated, and in some cases completely reversed course over time. We started off decades ago with firm bans on pagers and then cell phones. Many school leaders and teachers realized that playing the “cell phone police” all day was an uphill battle during their already hectic obligations as educators. Bans loosened as smart phones and other tech tools became more widely integrated into school climates as instructional tools.

The pendulum swing moved back in the other direction as school disruptions and misuse of phones (see below) caused more problems in schools. Many school administrators continue to allow students to have phones but set defined parameters on the times and locations of their use. Some schools have spent limited resources buying pouches in which students must place their phones at the beginning of each class and pick them up at the end of class in an effort to manage the risks of cell phone misuse.

Following student return to in-person learning from the Covid pandemic, we have seen a shift by school leaders — and in some cases state legislators and governors — to explore returning to full bans of use of smart phones and other unapproved electronic devices during school days. Some who have piloted or fully implemented these bans report positive changes in school climates. Discussions along the lines of tightening restrictions or bans appear to be increasing in the 2023-24 school years.

Parents, however, tend to push back out of school safety fears that they will not be able to quickly contact their children, or their children may not be able to call for help or contact their parents, in an active shooter or other school emergency.

Cell phones can be disruptive of the 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 or vibrating cell phones can disrupt classes and distract students who should be paying attention to their lessons. Text message has been used for cheating. Cell phones have been used to take photos of exams, take pictures of students in restrooms or changing clothes in gym locker areas, and for intense cyberbullying of students.

In some cases, students have used cell phones to record, stream, photograph, or even organize school fights.

Cell phone use in schools can negatively impact school safety

Student use of cell phones impacts school safety in a number of ways:

  1. Cell phones have been used to make bomb, shooting, and other threats to schools which may require extended time to investigate and identify the perpetrators.
  2. Cell phones have been used for making threats to individual students, cyberbullying, instigating fights, and other school safety disruptions.
  3. Student use of cell phones during an unfolding emergency can distract their attention from safety and emergency response directions being given by school staff.
  4. Cell phone use by students can hamper rumor control and, in doing so, disrupt and delay effective public safety personnel response.
  5. Cell phone use by students can impede public safety response by accelerating parental and community arrival at the scene of an emergency during times when officials may be attempting to evacuate students to another site.

Additionally, experience in emergency 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 an emergency management resource tool, it is possible that hundreds or thousands of students and others rushing to use their cell phones in a crisis could potentially overload cell phone systems in some areas. Therefore the use of cell phones by students and others in the immediate school community could potentially 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 delay or otherwise hinder timely and efficient parent-student reunification. It could potentially thrust parents into a zone of potential harm.

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

School administrators should prepare for rumors and fears accelerated by cell phones and texting about school safety issues

We have seen many incidents across the nation where rumors have disrupted schools and have even resulted in decreased attendance due to fears from rumored violence. The use of texting and other social media platforms often creates more anxiety and panic than any actual real security threats which trigger the rumors.

Our 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:  Website, direct communications to students and staff, mass parent notifications, letters to go home, etc.
  3. Discuss 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. Not every disciplinary incident or safety issue will rise to the level of mass notification to all parents. 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 engagement 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 social media strategy. Pofessionally 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.
  6. The key is to be prepared. 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.

Cell phones and other technology as instructional and school safety communications tools

As noted earlier above, times evolve and technology use certainly evolves with them. Cell phones, iPads, 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 iPads or laptop computers. One superintendent commented that in his more than 40 years in education, he has never seen kids so engaged in learning.

We have also seen schools are using technology to facilitate student communications about school safety concerns with administrators, SROs, school security, counselors, and others. Principals have shared with us during our school security and emergency preparedness assessments how students are able to submit school safety concerns, tips, incident reports, and related communications using email, QR codes, Google forms, and other tech tools. A number of school leaders have reported how student reports about school safety concerns and tips have increased substantially through the use of such tools.

The methods in which students 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, is likely unrealistic thinking.

Cell phone policies and practices in schools must meet the times but be clearly communicated 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 clearly 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 also enforce them consistently.

From a safety, security and emergency / crisis preparedness perspective, school boards, administrators, crisis teams, and public safety officials should have:

  1. Detailed conversations 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.
  2. Crisis communications plans and social media strategies to manage and respond in a timely manner to rumors and to communicate on security incidents and in crises.
  3. Well developed school 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, and 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.
  4. Communications 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 be aware of cell phone contact information for campus for administrators, crisis team members, and other appropriate adults. At the same time, an overreliance upon cell phones as a primary communications tool by school administrators, safety team members, and school staff is not recommended.  Too often we encounter school administrators and their safety teams who look to cell phone communications with one another as the “easiest way” to communicate about security issues, needs, and crises, failing to realize that potential delays, missed connections, and other snafus may detract from timely communications in time-sensitive incidents.

Concluding thoughts

Technology evolves. Society evolves. And so must our thinking on the role of cell phones and other technology in schools.

Regardless of whether 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.