EDITORIAL: Alex threats illuminate thorny cellphone issue

·2 min read

May 20—Cellphones are a revolutionary tool, empowering us to communicate in real time and putting us in touch with a world full of information and entertainment.

Cellphones are also major habit-forming distractions that inhibit personal connections.

For schools, as in general, cellphones and other personal electronic devices are at once very good and very bad.

They enable students to look up information at the tap of a screen, connecting to facts, research and news. But, on the flip side, they demand constant attention, keeping students from engaging in class, hindering learning and serving as a conduit for inappropriate comments and images.

So all schools are wrestling with this question: What to do about cellphones?

At Alexandria Monroe Jr./Sr. High School, the answer is to allow student cellphones in the building but require that they remain in the students' lockers throughout the school day.

This policy, when it's followed by students and enforced by teachers and administrators, certainly removes the distraction that cellphones cause in the classroom.

But that means students don't have immediate access to their cellphones in the case of an emergency.

Unfortunately, twice in a matter of several weeks, Alexandria schools have had such an emergency. Active shooter threats have been received by the school, prompting staff to sequester students in their classrooms for hours.

Students and teachers who were following the cellphone rule did not have access to their phones to communicate with their parents and other loved ones. Those not following the rules did have that ability.

The evening of the second shooter threat, at a school board meeting, some parents expressed frustration with the school's personal electronic device policy.

Andy Nichols, a parent of two students at the school, said the policy added to the anxiety triggered by the shooter threats.

"We, like many other parents, were in the dark. ... The fear was real that day, and when you don't hear from your kids, (that) fear is doubled," he said, proposing that students be allowed to have their cellphones with them throughout the school day for emergency use.

School Principal Julie Williams defended the school's policy, saying that allowing cellphones in emergency situations could add to the spread of misinformation, which could then hinder first-responder efforts and compromise student safety.

Controlling cellphone use, she said, allows information to be delivered efficiently and accurately by the school administration and police.

Both Williams and Nichols made salient and important points.

The active shooter threats at Alexandria disrupted school days, demanded the attention of local emergency personnel and prompted anxiety. The perpetrator of the threats, when caught, should be subject to full punishment allowed by law.

The threats also brought more attention and discussion to the thorny issue of cellphones in schools. There are no easy answers.