Nebraska schools look to tighten cell phone polices

In today's always-connected society, students can text-message rumors of bomb threats or school shootings -- credible or not -- to their parents and hundreds of classmates within seconds.

One of the biggest challenges for principals is getting ahead of that digital rumor mill, especially before it spreads false information and creates unnecessary panic.

To that end, several school districts in the Omaha area and elsewhere in Nebraska are tightening cell phone policies or considering new restrictions.

But parents like Kathy Kalhorn said it's important that their children be able to reach them to arrange an after-school pickup time or other things.

And, she said, a call from her daughter is especially important if there is a tense situation at school.

In mid-September, after a bomb threat at Millard North High School evolved into a school-shooting threat because of text-based rumors, Kalhorn told her daughter to call if she felt unsafe.

When her daughter said teachers might confiscate her phone if she used it during class, Kalhorn told her: "I'll deal with that later if they take your phone."

Omaha Police Capt. Ruth Ann Popp said school officials can't blame parents for panicking when their child tells them of a threat -- either after they arrive home or via text during the day.

Most Nebraska middle and high schools allow cell phones in school but restrict their use because of rumor-spreading, concerns about cheating and class disruptions. Some don't allow them at all during the school day, while others permit students to use them during study hall or between classes.

Today's students are "Generation Text," said Ken Trump, who leads the Clevelandbased National School Safety and Security Services.

About four of every five teens ages 13 to 18 have a cell phone, according to a national survey released in September by a wireless trade association. That's up from 40 percent in 2004.

School officials, Trump said, must be ready to counter rumors and false information "on a moment's notice." That can be tricky because kids consider information credible when it comes from their peers.

Over the past two years, the number of vague threats and rumors nationwide has spiked, he said. His for-profit consulting firm works with schools around the country providing training in crisis preparedness, threat assessment and school security.

Trump and Omaha Police Sgt. Jim Pauly said students have always looked for ways to disrupt school. Remember errant fire alarms? Trump said school threats, in many cases, are the new way to disrupt the day.

Students at Omaha North and Thomas Jefferson in Council Bluffs were arrested in September for allegedly making threats. Bomb threats also disrupted classes this fall in Fremont and Henderson, Neb., and Afton, Iowa. The threats were made in various ways -- by writing in bathrooms, talking to others and using the Internet.

In the first two months of the school year, the Omaha school district has investigated three threats as "serious." That might mean threats of a bomb or violence against another person. In the previous two school years during that same time period, there were no serious threats.

In the Millard district, the number of serious threats made in 2007-08 was down 12 compared with the two prior school years.

In April, threats at Westside High School kept most students home for two days. Principal Pat Hutchings said texting, as well as e-mail and social networking Web sites, probably contributed to the frenzy caused by threats found written on bathroom mirrors.

The school did not close, letting parents decide whether to let children attend. The district communicated by automated phone message to families, provided information online and answered questions over the phone for several dozen parents. Officials assured them that extra security measures were being taken, but that didn't completely quell concerns.

School shootings in other cities and the tragedy at Omaha's Von Maur department store in December have affected both students and their parents, Hutchings said. "There's fear out there."

Shortly after the bomb threat at Millard North, junior Ali Andersen received a text message from a classmate that urged her to stay home because there supposedly would be a shooting the next day.

"I just thought it wasn't true," she said. "But I'm sure some people do (believe the messages)."

School officials didn't evacuate the building that day, and the district's pupil services director said he suspected that most students didn't even know about the rumor until the end of the school day, when students could use their cell phones.

And this threat rumor did something that usually doesn't happen: It spread to Elkhorn High School through texts, surprising school officials and law enforcement.

Superintendent Roger Breed said an Elkhorn freshman got a text from a friend at Millard North who wrote that the rumors about a shooting at Millard North were wrong -- it would really happen at Elkhorn High. The Elkhorn student showed it to a teacher -- after sending it to a few friends with a note about how silly it was, Breed said.

Breed and Trent Steele, assistant principal at Kearney High School, said teaching phone etiquette is key. Steele said new consequences this fall for cell phone use in class -- confiscation for three to five days -- are curbing inappropriate phone use and bullying done with text messaging.

High schools in Norfolk also confiscate phones when they are used during class time. Omaha Public Schools officials are in the early stages of discussing changes to the district's cell phone policies.

Elkhorn's Breed, who will take over as Nebraska's state education commissioner next year, said eliminating cell phones from schools would solve problems they create.

Most metro area school districts already have taken steps to improve communication with parents.

Pauly, Trump and others said getting accurate information out to parents and students quickly is key to heading off rumors. Automated phone messaging systems allow school officials to call each household instantly to explain what occurred and the steps the school is taking or has taken to address it. Pauly said sending a mass e-mail, or even texting parents, would bolster the effort.

Corey Gauthier, a Millard North senior, said the rumor he heard most often the day of the bomb threat was that teachers were told not to share information with students.

District spokeswoman Amy Friedman said exactly the opposite was true.

Teachers were sent an e-mail advising ways to explain the situation to students -- and encourage them not to spread rumors -- through text or otherwise.

In case of emergency

Parents

Make sure the school knows how to reach you.

Talk with your child about cell phone use and rumors. Encourage them to tell school staff if they hear a threat.

Call the school for accurate information.

Students

Tell an adult if you hear, see or receive a threat.

Be wary of rumors. Don't spread them.

Stay calm. Ask for accurate information.

Schools

Get information to parents and students early. Update later.

Be accurate and clear to counter rumors.

Communi­cate in several ways: calls to home, work and cell phones, letters home, text messages and e-mail blasts.

Sources: Omaha Police Department; local school officials; Ken Trump of National School Safety and Security Services


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