How Cellphones Are Changing School Emergency Plans

In the past, schools and cellphones didn't mix. Teachers saw them as a distraction, and many schools banned their use in the classroom. But in the wake of school shootings over the past 13 years, school districts are beginning to change their policies.

Since the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Colorado, school districts and law enforcement authorities have worked together on strategies to respond to violence in schools. Plans include how to protect students inside buildings, evacuate them and notify parents. Students and teachers practice lockdown drills, steps to secure the school so that no one can enter or exit.

And technology is a big part of more recent plans, now that cellphone use among kids has grown. While most high school students wouldn't leave the house without their phones, children just starting school have cellphones, too. More than 1 in 10 kids between the ages of 6 to 10 already have their own cell, according to data collected during the first six months of 2012 by YouthBeat, a research firm that focuses on the use of technology by kids from preschool up to age 18.

After the Chardon High School shooting earlier this year, administrators at the small-town school in Ohio reported that students used their phones call 911 and to let their parents know they were safe. The school is now considering an update to their plan called ALICE — which stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate — in which cellphones play an important role. [See also: Does Your Middle-School Child Really Need a Cellphone?]

For instance, a mass text could direct students in case of a crisis. Teachers might send a text telling students to move outside if an intruder were at the opposite end of the building.

Other uses for cellphones during an attack include sending texts to parents, teachers and students with accurate information to help quell rumors and as a way to manage traffic when parents converge on a school and can block emergency responders.

The usefulness of cellphones in a crisis is partly why many school districts now allow high school and middle school students to carry their phones.

After the Newtown, Conn., shooting, elementary schools could make the same allowance for their students. And perhaps more parents would decide to give even their youngest children phones of their own.

Interviewed on CNN, an unnamed mother of a child who survived the Newtown shootings said, "Let's go get her cellphone activated right now."