Kids with Cell Phones in Emergencies

In the middle of a sensationalist article about risks to children and how giving them cell phones can help, there’s at least one person who gets it.

Since the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, many parents feel better having a way to contact their children. But hundreds of students on cell phones during an emergency can cause problems for responders.

“There’s a huge difference between feeling safer and being safer,” says Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.

According to Trump, students’ cell phone use during emergencies can do three things: increase the spread of rumors about the situation, expedite parental traffic at a scene that needs to be controlled and accelerate the overload of cell-phone systems in the area.

Tom Hautton, an attorney for the National School Board Association, said that cell phones in schools also can lead to classroom distractions, text-message cheating and inappropriate photographs and videos being spread around campus.

We are just naturally inclined to make irrational security decisions when it comes to our children.

Posted on August 14, 2008 at 12:20 PM60 Comments


Jason August 14, 2008 12:40 PM

“There’s a huge difference between feeling safer and being safer.”

That should be on a T-shirt or better yet, a billboard.

Baron Dave Romm August 14, 2008 12:49 PM

There’s a whole bunch of people of people who desperately need to read Larry Niven’s “Flash Crowd”, and then apply the lesson to the High School gossip mill.

Anonymous August 14, 2008 1:01 PM

I guess I don’t get it. Is the argument that kids should just not have cell phones?

And the reasons are:
1) could lead to classroom distractions
2) could enable text-message cheating
3) could facilitate inappropriate photographs and videos being spread around campus
4) Maybe someone will start shooting up the school (or presumably any other disaster) and:
4a) maybe all the kids will get on cell phones and:
4a1) maybe that will bring down the cell network
4a2) maybe the information that spreads will be inaccurate
4a3) maybe a bunch of parents will come to pick up their kids and
4a3a) maybe parents will get in the way of emergency responders

I must say that not one of those arguments impresses me much.

Classroom distractions are older than cell phones. Papers and pencils could be used to enable cheating. Backpacks and pockets could be used to spread contraband around campus.

And redundant realtime communications channels in an emergency situation might have its benefits.

Anonymous August 14, 2008 1:06 PM

Kids with cells in school is as predictable a headache as one would imagine, as illustrated in the sensible part of the above excerpt. This leads to a vicious cycle of rules against cells followed by loads of time extracted from teaching to deal with the inevitable infractions.

Dewey August 14, 2008 1:10 PM

I understand the issues about scarce-resource congestion. I believe there have been several large scale emergencies where local cell networks have been overloaded, and emergency services do use those networks. (Hopefully by now all providers have implemented QoS provisionsing — but they hadn’t when I worked getting mobile networks to public safety departments.)

However, of Trump’s 3 issues, the last is the only one I consider valid. We don’t have stadiums full of children too often, so traffic congestion isn’t a problem, and trying to make rules to avoid rumors is…well…it hasn’t worked yet in history 🙂

I must admit, however, that the arguments which boil down to “it makes the children harder to control” leave me cold. Aside from the mistaking control for security, I’m one of those people who think that parents, not government, are responsible for their children.

Noah Slater August 14, 2008 1:18 PM

I don’t buy this argument at all. No school I know of has a student body large enough to overload the local telecommunications network with a random sample of active calls in such a situation. As one of the previous commenters has already pointed out, distributed, redundant communication channels can only be a good thing in an emergency. The rest of the arguments apply equally to students without phones.

dbt August 14, 2008 1:21 PM

Most emergencies that teenagers will encounter in their lives will not involve attempted massacres.

There’s nothing wrong with giving a 15 year old kid a cellphone to use when necessary.

bob August 14, 2008 1:33 PM

-Given 4; 4a is guaranteed

-Given 4a; 4a3 is guaranteed

-Given 4a3; 4a3a is guaranteed

As far as redundant emergency channels, cellphones rarely work in (large, like 9/11 or earthquake or Katrina) emergencies. Either the infrastructure (links to the POTS system) is gone, or they are saturated. And even if they did work, you could issue each teacher a cellphone for just that purpose.

The fact that there were already low-tech ways to cheat is not a reason to add additional, high-tech ways to cheat.

Students have no need for iPods, comic books, World of Warcraft accounts, pianos or cellphones IN the classroom. If they want to keep them in their lockers, that would be OK.

@Jason: I agree with your sentiment, but there is a large percentage of the US population who would not know which is better.

@Noah Slater: My High School had way over 1500 students. Assuming 70% had cellphones (I bet its more) and someone heard shots and/or the classrooms were locked down I cant believe the number of kids who called could SOMEONE (maybe each other – worst case) would be less than 700 or so, although probably ~evenly distributed between 2 major systems. So that would be 350 calls in a single cell. All trying to dial at the same time. Sounds like a substantial load to me.

wsinda August 14, 2008 1:35 PM

Buying a cell phone because of school shootings is doubly irrational. One: school shootings are a rare occurrence. Two: if it does happen, the wave of phone calls might congest the network.

Ironically, in this case two times irrationality equals rationality. Cell phones come in handy in more common emergencies, such as sickness, a traffic accident, or a mugging. From a security viewpoint you should focus on the largest risk…

Angel one August 14, 2008 1:41 PM

Shockingly when I was in high school I did not have a cell phone, and neither did most of my friends. (I’m young enough that a few people did, but cell phones were new and did not dominate like they do now). Shockingly none of us felt less safe for not having them, and we all managed to get out of high school alive.

Several years later, when cell phones were taken as a given, I decided to give up my cell phone for a while. Someone close to me (who shall remain nameless) was shocked when she heard this – “what will you do in an emergency” she said, “it’s not safe not to have a cell phone”.

The moral is, it’s all about norms. In 1998, no one thought of a cell phone as normal, and therefore no one thought of it was a safety measure. In 2008 cell phones are normal, and the lack of one is seen as a detriment to safety. It has nothing to do with whether or not a cell phone actually makes you safer, but rather whether a cell phone is considered “normal”.

Mike August 14, 2008 1:43 PM

My wife is a teacher and she finds that more time is spent dealing with the problems the cell phones cause as a distraction than any time spent taking them away. Cell phones are like toys to kids in a class. Can you imagine how difficult it would be maintain order in a classroom if every kid in the class brought their favorite toys to class every day?

Keep them in your bag, and turned off. There is absolutely no reason why you need to have them on during school. If a parent needs to contact their child during school hours, then they can call the office. If a child needs to call someone during school hours, then they can go to the office.

Yorick August 14, 2008 1:52 PM

Kneejerk reaction: jam or otherwise disable cell phones in the classroom, let them go in the hallways and other places on campus. If quick emergency notification is required, rig the fire alarm to a mailing/SMS/voice mail list.

It occurs to me that low-end smartphones will help exacerbate most of the issues raised in the article, by allowing parents to lock down functionality that they don’t want their kids using – white- and blacklists for incoming and outgoing calls and messages, always-on GPS, that sort of thing. The phone is owned by the parent, and loaned to the child; who should have control over its capabilities?

Anonymous August 14, 2008 1:53 PM

4a is not a bad thing
4a3 is not a bad thing
4a3a is not guaranteed, but I’ll give you that it’s reasonably likely. Still, it’s not necessarily a cell phone issue.

If we really don’t want parents to know about the danger in realtime, perhaps we should ban live news coverage of emergencies where children could be in danger.

Otherwise, I hope that crowd control is generally included in first responder training and implemented in crisis responses.

OldFish August 14, 2008 1:54 PM

I don’t buy it either. My kids have cellphones. The phones have been very useful for coordinating all of the driving that goes along with school, lessons, sports and other activities. In an emergency I want to talk to my kids no matter what anyone else might think is best and the unfounded assertion of a petty bureaucrat that it might interfere with some imagined scenario means absolutely nothing to me. Kenneth Trump can go sit on a fencepost and rotate.

Ben August 14, 2008 1:54 PM

These exact arguments work equally well for pencils and lunchpails.

“Kids should not be allowed to have pencils or lunchpails in school because of the potential for violence and distractions caused by these nefarious objects.”

Soon, we won’t be allowed to carry them (pencils or lunchpails) on airplanes, either — right?

Security Morons! Sheesh!

Alfredo Octavio August 14, 2008 1:58 PM

I don’t buy that parents buy cellphones for those types of emergencies. They buy for more personal everyday emergencies: Kids need to be picked up, Kids has small medical issue, Kids was bullied and is crying and needs a talk with his Mom/Dad. Those are the “emergencies” that parents worry about and the cellphone can help with them. As for class interruption… That’s bs, if classes were interesting, nothing would be a distraction, if classes are boring, everything is a distraction, particularly for a teenager.

Ian MacDonald August 14, 2008 1:59 PM

Just a thought but what happens in an emergency when all these kids call their parents to see what they should do instead of listening to the school authority on the scene? If parental authority then tries to trump school authority wouldn’t that be a recipe for a bit of chaos?

Mike August 14, 2008 2:02 PM

Oh this is all just splendid. We already accept having our children imprisoned in the brainwashing centers that are public schools, treat them as property, etc., so why not just one more restriction, eh?

I mean, it’s so reasonable that kids can’t use mobile phones properly while adults can. I mean, look at all the brilliant adults you’re surrounded with on a daily basis.

Fred P August 14, 2008 2:16 PM

The “inappropriate photographs” is the one which amuses me the most (and it is in lots of anti-cellphone articles). I gather that they’ve never heard of (portable) Cameras?

Steven Hoober August 14, 2008 2:19 PM

The classroom interruption worries sound exactly like the “lost manpower” worries that corporations have with talking on the phone, IMing, etc. Technology will not enable screwing around when the parties are so inclined. Banning specific technologies will not focus everyone on the work at hand.

Michael Ash August 14, 2008 2:20 PM

Let’s forget about children for one moment.

If some lunatic starts shooting people and I’m nearby, everybody is better off if I have a cell phone. I’ll immediately call the police, and the faster someone calls, the faster they’ll arrive and the sooner the lunatic will stop shooting people. Removing cell phones from everybody just allows his rampage to go on longer.

Now replace me with a 12-year-old kid. I don’t see why that would change the argument at all.

Davi Ottenheimer August 14, 2008 2:21 PM

The real question is one of disaster recovery, and Trump seems less than qualified to offer an expert opinion on technology. Granted he is an expert consultant on security in organizations and school behavior, but can someone show me his qualifications to anticipate technology trends or impact?

The real answer of the future is micro-blog sites with authentication tied to online maps.

In other words, responders (including parents) would be given role-based access to see who is doing what, where and when.

Shooting is an extreme example, and should be factored into all disasters such as earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, etc. where people closest to the incident (even students) with cameras can post images and twitter brief status updates. If the system is designed properly, it makes responders far more effective.

The irrational response is to ignore the benefits of technology simply because we are afraid of a few things that might happen when individuals are given some freedom. Anticipate the risks, create opportunities for benefits.

OldFish August 14, 2008 2:21 PM

“Just a thought but what happens in an emergency when all these kids call their parents to see what they should do instead of listening to the school authority on the scene? If parental authority then tries to trump school authority wouldn’t that be a recipe for a bit of chaos?”

I like our public schools and the majority of the kid’s teachers that I have met but there is only one that I would I trust to be effective in an emergency. My authority while my children are minors trumps the school’s authority absolutely.

Plus maybe a little chaos is a good thing, especially in light of the type of order that authorities like to create.

Mike B August 14, 2008 2:27 PM

Your missing the point, while giving your kid a cell phone to be safer in school is clearly not necessary, having that cell phone when they are outside of school has many practical benefits and probably some safety benefits as well (especially if you take into account the lowering of parental blood pressure).

If a cell phone will make a parent feel better about their kid walking to school instead of having their fat ass driven then more power to them.

Finally, I would hope that people here can recognize a real safety argument from one designed to leverage a particular outcome. Giving a kid a cell phone has enormous practical benefits for the parent. I spent my entire school life dealing with late rides and other surprises that a mobile phone would have greatly mitigated. When schools try to ban phones parents will pull out every card including the “safety card”. If the safety card can be used to restrict our freedoms why not use it to prevent schools from infringing on student’s rights to mobile communication.

The proper response is for the FCC to stop being retarded and allow the use of cell phone jamming technology as currently employed in Israel to prevent bombings. It’s the least invasive way to implement reasonable time and place restrictions on truly irritating and unecessary mobile communications.

derf August 14, 2008 2:40 PM

Kids are people with first amendment rights too. The girls need to gossip, the A students need some sort of outlet while the teachers catch everyone else up, and the entrepreneurs need to be able to conclude their drug deals.

Replacing one set of rare, sensationalist issues with a different set of rare, sensationalist issues isn’t news, it’s CNN.

Andrew August 14, 2008 2:43 PM

At the risk of being an arrogant SOB, I see this entire issue (cell phones in schools, armed parents, etc.) as being about power and control, and the illusion thereof.

Cell phones allow teenagers to communicate with each other and with parents. The latter still have some vestigial rights which might get in the way of an administrator’s attempt to “keep control” of the situation.

As for making emergency calls, if people were trained to quickly and accurately report emergencies to the proper authorities. 911 as a centralized calling number has been a good start, but more sophisticated technologies are needed.

When I call for emergency help, I call that agency’s seven digit telephone number because it is programmed into my phone, as opposed to ‘911’ which is answered by a call center sixty miles away. This requires more sophistication and knowledge of your local agencies, and I default to 911 when traveling (119 internationally). A quick and competent call to local police dispatch trumps twenty panicked 911 calls to a state police call center that has to transfer the calls to one overworked local dispatcher.

If armed parents charged into my child’s school, and my child was harmed as a result, I’d sue the living shit out of them, and I’d win.

Would you sue the SWAT team for not securing the scene quickly enough, or the paramedics for obeying protocol and police orders and waiting outside while your child bled to death? Just checking.

This trend of delegating responsibility, authority and common sense to “them,” whether it be the government or the ‘proper authorities’ is puzzling to many rural residents and sets disturbing precedent.

If someone starts shooting up a high school in Redneckville, I would expect the local rednecks to take a profound and heavily armed personal interest. The sheriff knows this and plans accordingly. The same shooting in Urbantown results in additional police being tied up “maintaining a perimeter” and “keeping unauthorized persons out of the area,” effectively allowing the active shooter their own personal playground, which they will eventually get to share with the SWAT team.

I personally think that cell phones are almost useless for the ordinary person in an emergency, and especially useless for muggings. (“Excuse me, do you mind if I call 911 instead of handing you my wallet? Please wait, I’m on hold.”) However they offer the illusion of control and thus empowerment.

That said, 911 cell phone calls are an important means by which emergency responders can become aware of a situation in progress. That doesn’t mean that YOU must have one, merely that enough people have one that there will be a phone on or driving past the scene.

rogue medic August 14, 2008 2:46 PM

Anyone buying a cell phone for children to use during school shootings does not understand the problem.

Anyone banning cell phones for the same reason is equally missing the point.

A phone is a tool. Any tools can be misused by any tool.

When my, now adult, child was in school, her mother and I shared custody, but lived in different states within driving distance. This was an important reason to be able to contact our child and/or the other parent. If calling the office were effective, rather than an interruption of the class, for an announcement to send the child to the office, there might be some basis for having everything filtered through the office. Plans change. I am a paramedic, so emergencies may cause a delay of my arrival to pick my child up, even cancel them completely.My situation is much less rare than a school shooting.

Emergency services do have their own means of communication. Still, 911 centers have their lines tied up when all the adults call 911 for something that happens in public that “looks bad.” Children are not necessarily less responsible than adults. Children can be taught to behave responsibly. Those behaving irresponsibly should be dealt with individually, not as a group.

Text messaging can be an effective means of communication when all of the phone lines are tied up. A message could state, “I’m safe. I will be at this location. Don’t worry.” This can avoid a lot of the interference of parents at the scene. Expecting that everyone will panic treats everyone as the lowest common denominator. That is a mistake. Deal with the problems individually, not by punishing everyone for what you think someone will do.

In England they have been banning fire extinguishers from some apartments. Why? Someone might use them. Why not train people to use them responsibly, instead?

What if? Is generally a question used to prevent people from thinking. We should avoid that approach, here.

rogue medic August 14, 2008 2:55 PM


In Pennsylvania, they have been forcing the local police departments to switch to county based dispatch through requirements for more and more training. This has removed those familiar with the locality from 911 dispatch. Some police departments no longer even have non-emergency numbers. If you are connected to the wrong county’s dispatch, it is also a big delay.

You do make good points, just pointing out a growing trend.

Zeuss August 14, 2008 3:07 PM

Students having cellphones = security.
Students not having cellphones because the authorities are in charge = security theater.

The whole network congestion thing is irrelevant for two reasons.

First, because the most common networks in the US (CDMA and GSM) have AOC (access overload control) systems that can prioritize access for emergency responders. This system has largely been deployed over the past two years.

Second, emergency responders shouldn’t even be relying on the public cell phone network for their response. That is why they have their own emergency radio network that is separate and independent of the cell phone network.

Roy August 14, 2008 3:08 PM

A side point: Schools like to think of themselves as authorities, as unelected governments answering to no one, but they operate ‘in loco parentis’, ‘in place of parents’, acting as the parents’ deputies, the same as it would be in day care, day camp, summer camp, music lessons, or Sunday school. If schools get to have their own police, then the parents should get to have uber-police, with authority over the school police.

TS August 14, 2008 3:21 PM

It doesn’t take much to overload. Commuting in NYC, I’ve experienced several occasions where service is stopped or disrupted, and everyone gets on the phone to call the boss or spouse, and many times it takes a while to get through.

I got caught in the steam pipe explosion outside Grand Central. Even though it was smaller than 9/11, you couldn’t get a call out while you were near GCT. I think I was at least 10 blocks away before I was able to get a call out.

Could several hundred kids calling at the same time block cell service? Absolutely.

Personal Alarms August 14, 2008 3:38 PM

Kids have been taking mobile (cell) phones to school for years here in the UK. I can’t fathom out why this is such a security flaw.

So, your saying keep the parents in the dark if there is an unfortunate event at a school – the emergency services here work on their own communication band – not public mobile (cell) phones – and I’m darn sure the States are the same.

As for spreading rumour and flase information – do the networks do any better in a real life example — think not!

Skorj August 14, 2008 3:54 PM

school shootings are a rare occurrence.

You sound like an “ignorant gun-loving NRA retard.”

This is why people are bad at security.

Your child is 1000 times as likely to die or be injured in an auto accident than in a school shooting. When evaluating the safety aspect of giving your child a cell phone, if you waste even on minute thinking about the school shooting case instead of the accident case, you’re parenting poorly.

It seems to me that a cell phone would be quite handy after an auto accident, and for a teenager it might occasionally lead to a ride from home rather than from friends. Sounds like cell phones are worthwhile on balance.

Roxanne August 14, 2008 4:16 PM

The teenager is bugging the parent 24/7 to get them a cellphone. The parent is RATIONALIZING the decision by saying that it’s for security purposes. The parent knows very well that 99% of the cellphone’s use is going to be for non-emergency calls.

OTOH, my son used his yesterday when he locked himself out of the house, and a crisis was soon resolved. (Yes, it would have been worse if it had been, say, snowing, instead of 75F and sunny.)

Bill August 14, 2008 4:16 PM

while most of the points are valid –
… cell phones are tools, good for a purpose, and easily misused by the untrained masses…
and that School administrators overreact ..

I have to check the concept that
@Zeuss “..Second, emergency responders shouldn’t even be relying on the public cell phone network for their response. […] they have their own emergency radio network…”

A lot of people believe this – in my big urban area, the radios are just another theater prop. They happen to be a very expensive prop – so lots of money can be kicked back – but until the system works as advertised, the radios are as useless as they were on 9/11.

There are quite a few police and emergency departments in the greater NYC area that have spent millions on upgrading (or investigating the possibility of upgrading) radio systems. They still have almost as many “dead spots” as before. Watch any police activity in that area, and you will see most reaching for their personal cell phones – not the radio.

The cell is more reliable, and is not monitored (at least not easily) like the radios are.
I can only speculate where that habit can lead.

Fred P August 14, 2008 4:42 PM

@Mike B-

You do realize that jamming technology, deployed consistently, will just encourage people to use bands that aren’t jammed, don’t you?

Pat Cahalan August 14, 2008 5:49 PM

@ Bob

If they want to keep them in their lockers, that
would be OK.

Students don’t have lockers anymore, they’re a “security issue”. So now, instead of socking their drugs and guns away during the school hours, they’re packing them around in their backpacks.

@ Zeuss

First, because the most common networks in the US
(CDMA and GSM) have AOC (access overload control) systems
that can prioritize access for emergency responders.

Not precisely accurate. The emergency responders can use the local cell tower, sure. The problem is getting the emergency responders to the location in the first place (at which point they’re probably using their own communication nexus, not their cell phones). For that, some (small number of) the people at the incident need to be able to transmit calls.

Once the response is in full swing for a major event (like a school shooting or a building collapse), first responders need critical data.

The problem is that they can’t get the critical data if the people with the data can’t call out. And the people with the data can’t call out if there are 400 people at the location with cell phones.

NOT necessarily because they’re all calling out. In 1999 (the last time I checked this sort of thing, a million years ago in technology terms) the average cell tower could handle about 100 calls. I imagine that number has scaled way up; there’s probably enough cell towers within range of a school to handle outgoing calls. The problem is the INCOMING calls.

If 400 students have cell phones, when a building collapse or shooting occurs at a school, each one of those students is going to have N concerned relatives calling in, boom… no more circuits (this is what happened in the Minnesota bridge collapse:

Sure, kids should pack cell phones for lots of reasons. But defense against major catastrophes isn’t one of them; in any major event, their cell phone is going to be a shiny brick.

A. Nony Moose August 14, 2008 6:02 PM

Giving kids cell phones because you are worried about somebody shooting up the school is like having them wear a life jacket to school because you worry about flash flooding. It’s really not going to happen.

Giving kids cell phones because you want them to be able to call or be called by you or someone else is reasonable.

If you’re against the latter then the extremely low probability of the former shouldn’t override that decision. Or get a phone with no service that can still dial 911.

John Ridley August 14, 2008 6:29 PM

I don’t really understand why high school students need phones in general. Heck, I don’t need one. That said, I have one, and my high school daughter has one. Mine never even gets turned on except maybe for 2 minutes every couple of months if I’m at a store and need to ask my wife something. My daughter does some texting, 2 or 3 messages a day some days, none on others, but that’s about it.
I don’t really mind if she has one, but we didn’t get it for her for safety. I think it’s a ridiculous argument. If a shooting starts, one phone per classroom is more than sufficient, and I think every teacher I’ve met recently has a phone.

None August 14, 2008 8:29 PM

One cannot make the argument that having cell phones for kids in schools make the school safer in “big” incidents for the reason that Schneier states — network congestion, collapse, etc. when it happens.

But what about the other smaller incidents that are “big” to the individuals concerned, but may be small in the overall scheme of things?


A gang of bullies corning a student to and from school, in a dark corner of the school?

A student having an accident (injury during sports, who knows?)

An incident involving students (like the kind of things that tend to occasionally happen in certain Mississippi school(s)) that is unpleasant even though it causes no physical injury.

All of these incidents that are every day occurrences but not “big event(s) like a killing” can benefit from students having instant communications.

I concur with school administrators who argue that phones need to be not used while school is in session — which can be handled with a mandatory power off rule (with a very simple signal detector that detects for an “on” wireless device.

csrster August 15, 2008 1:21 AM

If I’m reading this article correctly ….

Is it really the case that there are kids in American High Schools who don’t have their own mobile phones? What an odd country 🙂

Colin (in Denmark)

Tommi August 15, 2008 2:27 AM

I’m from Finland. Ten to fifteen years ago kids started bringing their cell phones to schools. It’s very common nowadays, and even some 7-year-olds have a personal cell phone.

There aren’t that many classroom distractions. Usually the teacher keeps the order, and if someone starts to distract people with a cell phone they get the same treatment as any other distractor. Cheating in a test with a cell phone is as easily dealt with as cheating with a piece of paper in a pencil case.

As to cell phone networks getting congested during emergencies, that didn’t happen here during the Jokela school shooting. You would need a nationwide emergency to have something like that.

The biggest problem here has been cell phone cameras. Recently there was an incident where a teacher sang a song in the school’s may day celebration. Someone shot a video of this with a cell phone and uploaded it to Youtube with a text that referred to the school as a mental asylum and to the teacher as a maniac. The incident was then handled by a district court, which decided that the student was guilty of “kunnianloukkaus” (I believe slander is the equivalent term in Finnish).

I’m confident, though, that this kind of problems will vanish as time goes by.

I’m not saying cell phones at school should be encouraged. I’m saying they absolutely shouldn’t be discouraged.

Devin August 15, 2008 3:32 AM

Eh, really?

Big emergencies are very rare. Kids with cell phones can’t help and could hurt in a big emergency.

Little emergencies are pretty common. Having a cell phone when you miss the last bus out of a dubious neighborhood, or when you’re at a party and you realize it was a really bad idea* can make a huge difference. When I was in high school, stuff like that happened at least a couple times a year, but I was never in a big emergency.

*Also, parents, make sure your kids have the number of an adult who will never, ever tell you about the scary party your kid was at. Your kids will not call you, no matter how much you plan to not yell at them, but they will usually know when they’re in over their heads and if they have a way to get out without losing face, they will take it.

Andrew August 15, 2008 7:24 AM

I agree with all the others who talk about the little emergencies being the most important.
But there is one issue that is not being parsed out in these articles.
What is good for society is not necessarily good for the individual. I don’t care about problems for society when it comes to my girls.
Having a Cell is good for them now, and in most situations.
I’m not going to take their cells away for the benefit of the rest of society when the incremental ‘pain’ to society for their Cells is immaterial.
And I might be on the other side of the world, but I feel the same way as many Americans, jam my Cell and I’ll jam this hammer into your transmitter.

chris r August 15, 2008 8:16 AM

Someone I’m related to works in the administration of a university in Pennsylvania (sorry, not sure if it’s ok for me to be more specific) and he told me that one up side to cell phone proliferation is quick dissemination of info from the university itslef. In the wake of the various nationally-covered campus incidents, the university set up a text-messaging system to alert people as to the safest action and dispel rumors, which they’ve used a few times successfully.

Robert Hart August 15, 2008 10:42 AM

In London, the cell phone network was shut down the morning of the July bombings a few years ago. I remember reading somewhere that this is standard practice in the UK. I remember reading articles that contingency planners were told not to rely on cell phones in disasters.

If I remember the reasoning was to clear the airwaves for emergency use, and stop terrorists from using the cell phone network to communicate, trigger more bombs, etc.

I would love to reference the article, but I think it was printed and not on the internet – and it was a long time ago.

Nunya August 15, 2008 11:26 AM

I don’t see why the article is sensationalist, especially compared to all of the other examples we have of sensationalism and security. The article does discuss pro’s and con’s of a kid having a cell phone and does not make it sound like your kid will die without it.
I think the statement from the person who ‘got it’ was a nice breath of fresh air, in the statement that there is a difference between feeling safe and being safe. But then the rest of the statement seems to be as much hyperbole as someone who buys a cell phone in case there is a school shooting. The same issues he brought up are possibly true all over and not just in a school setting.

There are definite reasons why cell phones are a nuisance at school, but so were cars,comic books,transistor radios,walkmans, hand held video games,etc back in the day. Adapt to the times and apply the rules that applied to the same category with some tweak for the new technology. Educators need to accept new technology, adapt and set rules around it proactively, for kids and parents alike.

No, I did not have a cell phone when I was a kid and yes I survived. But cell phones have also saved lives in many occurrences and have led investigators to found out what happened whereas without it someone would have been out of luck.Think about kidnappings,tracking cell phone pings,etc.

Do I think a cell phone will unequivocally make my child safe ? No. Do I think seat belts will unequivocally make me live in ANY car crash ? No. Do I think that locking my house door will keep a determined attacker from causing me harm ? No. Most people do not believe any of this either, but they do know that any modicum of safety or communication is better than none. A kid having a cell phone is certainly not an extreme measure .

dragonfrog August 15, 2008 11:26 AM


Your child is 1000 times as likely to die or be injured in an auto accident than in a school shooting. (…) It seems to me that a cell phone would be quite handy after an auto accident, and for a teenager it might occasionally lead to a ride from home rather than from friends. Sounds like cell phones are worthwhile on balance.”

Keep in mind also that talking on a cellphone has been found to be more impairing to driving ability than having a blood alcohol level of .08. If your kid is going to be driving, giving them a cellphone is more dangerous than giving them a stiff whiskey. (If you think they will have the self control not to answer the phone while driving, you either have a most remarkable kid, or a much more commonplace case of self-deception)

Cassidy Macfarlane August 15, 2008 11:34 AM

That’s the link to the story referenced above, where the police attempted to get the cell network shut down in the wake of the 7/7 attacks.

‘Contrary to agreed procedure’ according to the article.

more here:

The Hill August 15, 2008 8:42 PM

@Alfredo Octavio

“As for class interruption… That’s bs, if classes were interesting, nothing would be a distraction, if classes are boring, everything is a distraction, particularly for a teenager.”

I think you’re making the mistake of believing that children (teenagers in particular) will act like adults… most adults don’t “act like adults”…

Entertaining DOES NOT equal IMPORTANT. Do you think maybe the USA wouldn’t be in such a bad situation if people paid more attention to the world around them than consumer gadgetry, reality TV, and who Linsday Lohan happens to be boinking?

Baby Boomer August 16, 2008 8:48 PM

Is the problem here more of a
Babby boomer not understanding
Gen X, Gen Y or Gen Z ways of communication.

taghag August 17, 2008 5:51 AM

i didn’t read all the comments, so perhaps someone else has mentioned something that is glaringly obvious to me:
when i was school-age, it was driven into my skull to call the cops if there was an emergency of the magnitude of a school shooting. i can’t say for sure, but i think calling my parents would’ve been priority #2.

Jeffrey Goldberg August 17, 2008 8:59 AM

I’ve been thinking of getting a phone for my nearly 10 year old daughter. Not because I anticipate it being useful during a school shooting, but because I want to be able to call her when she is playing with kids in our neighborhood. I can reduce the level of direct supervision she is under by knowing that I can reach her and find out where she is.

GrimlyPeeping August 18, 2008 8:01 AM

According to Trump, students’ cell phone use during emergencies can do three things: increase the spread of rumors about the situation, expedite parental traffic at a scene that needs to be controlled and accelerate the overload of cell-phone systems in the area. Mr. Trump is in the security business. By extension he is in the control business. He wants to control the flow of information, and he wants control the scene of an incident. Therefore, his first two reasons are purely self serving. “Increase the spread of rumors” could just as well be written “increase the spread of accurate and timely information, regardless of the desire of authorities to block accurate and timely information”. As far as wanting to “control parental traffic”, if authorities are getting between parents and their children then the authorities are the problem, not the children. His third point, about overloading the cell-phone network, is a red herring. Modern cell phone systems use access overload control to ensure that emergency responders can use the network no matter how congested. If you have a CDMA phone, for example, start up some program like QPST that lets you inspect the CDMA NAM fields. Look for a NAM field called “Access Overload Control”. You will see a two-digit number there, which will probably be between 01 and 09, and will probably match the last digit of your phone number. This is your overload priority in case of network congestion. Higher is better. Normal people get priorities of “00” to “09”. Now use QPST to change your priority from whatever it is to “10”. Congratulations, you now have the priority of a network engineer working for the cell phone company. Now change it to “11”. Congratulations, you now have the priority of a local police force or fire department. After you are done playing, don’t “forget” to take it off of 11. In short, all three of his points are bogus. The real problem is that security today is really security theatre. They want to create a perception of security while actually increasing control. P.S. – AOC has another purpose besides making sure emergency responders can use the network during times of high congestion, but I’ll let you try to guess that purpose on your own.

-ac- August 19, 2008 3:42 PM

Disruptive technology. Get used to it.

Teach you kids to text in case of emergency instead of calling.

Problem solved.

aaawww August 29, 2008 5:57 AM

a issing point from the conversation: access control won’t do anything if everyone is calling 911 (everything has the same priority).

and do not forget the effect of the child calling the parent and the parent calling the 911.

also not only the net will be congested, but the first responder center has to handle all the calls from panicking parents and children, which could prevent effective response if ever there were two school shooting one 10 mins after another (is a theater, I know, but two generic emergency one after another in crowded areas are possible in a state large as the USA)

said this, I think that other scenarios as smuggling, bulling and so on are uncounterable by cellphones (better of with an emergency switch and a gps – but then you need 24/7 surveillance of the other end of the switch)

as someone else said cellpone is a tool and training is required to use it effectively – the presented scenario is mitigated if children are instructed only to communicate with parents and only via text in emergencies, mainly to agree an exit/pickup strategy not to interfere with other police/firefighter/swat/supermen/monkey masters operations.
This obviously supposes that parents could act responsibly and guide the child from remote outside the emergency operations area – which is not the case, I fear.

Anonymous January 8, 2009 11:29 AM

Hello I’m the cell phone user. My big brother was walking to school one day and he was using his cell phone to get answers for a test they would be having that day. A week later my mom found out the whole thing. So then my brother was kicked out of school for 10 days. So thats why I think cell phones should be baned from schools. The new girl

Bill G February 28, 2009 10:03 AM

Don’t put too much faith in cell phones for true emergencies – they have repeatedly been shown to be virtually worthless in major emergencies because of system overloading. And in some localities, the cell phone systems can be shut down completely by the authorities during certain types of emergencies, for example, to keep them from being used to trigger explosive devices.

Your Dad February 21, 2020 10:09 AM

I can’t believe people have the audacity to go out there and make claims like this. Spread rumors? What are you talking about? If emergency, and I mean EMERGENCY calls spread rumors, why haven’t any other calls spread rumors yet? This is dumb. Please take this down, this is offensive.

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