Nebraska schools look to tighten cell phone polices

Officials say text messages can be used to spread rumors that threaten security


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