Lockdown raises debate

Cell Phone

Jae C. Hong

Chandler Miler was in fifth period at Summerville High School when school administrators announced that the school would be going into a precautionary lockdown.

A man wanted in the robbery of a convenience store in the area ended up in front of the school May 17.

Even though the phrase "remain calm" was used in the intercom announcement, the high school senior and student body president said she did not feel that way.

"It's frightening when there's something happening and we don't know exactly what's going on," she said.

In those moments of fear, Miler, a self-proclaimed "rule-follower," used her cell phone to contact her parents, breaking a school policy that prohibits cell-phone use. However, she was not the only one, according to fellow senior Krista Grooms.

"There were a lot of students using their cell phones," Grooms said, "and teachers were telling them to turn them off."

Concerns about cell phones and safety are not limited to a lockdown at Dorchester County School District 2. Schools in Berkeley and Charleston counties also prohibit the use of cell phones by students, citing safety as the primary reason.

Rodney Thompson, the Berkeley County School District's chief administrative officer, said recently that the district has received complaints from parents whose children's phones have been confiscated. They mostly complain about being locked into contracts and required to make payments even though their children aren't using the phones, he said.

Students could use cell phones to invite outsiders to the school or create a disturbance in the classroom, Thompson said.

Safety was also the reason Sherwood Miler gave his daughter, Chandler, a cell phone as a birthday present her freshman year.

"Safety was absolutely the motivator and, in my opinion, when it is the parent making the purchase, safety is always the reason," Miler's father said.

With safety at the top of the priority list for parents and school districts alike, the

reasoning for and against cell-phone use during the school day differs.

As Summerville High School PTSA president, Tanya Robinson said she understands safety concerns from both the parent and the school districts' perspectives. "There are certain rules that students must follow," she said.

Mike Turner, security coordinator of Dorchester District 2, said he agrees and that these rules are in place for a reason, primarily in an emergency.

"From a public safety standpoint, I can tell you that it doesn't take much to overwhelm a cell tower," Turner said. "With agencies trying to determine the status of the situation, and quite frankly, most of them are using cell phones to communicate with whomever is on the ground, if students are sending out text messages and trying to get up with their parents, it could make things more difficult for those agencies while they are trying to do their job."

Another problem that could arise from students using cell phones during an emergency involves traffic, Turner said.

"When you have people (parents) converging on that school during an emergency situation, that generally means that these emergency responders are going to be coming fast and with sirens," he said. "But, if they get there and they're having to swerve around a lot of cars, they'll have to do crowd control when they need to be focusing on the situation."

In the case of an emergency, the best thing a parent can do is be patient and trust that their child is safe, Turner said.

"It's a double-edge sword," Turner, a father of two, said of cell phones. "You want to be able to get in touch with your fifth- or sixth-grader, and it may be an hour or so before you get home. I have an 8-year-old and an 11-year-old and I understand that. But I also understand that it may not always be practical the way you envisioned it."

The best thing parents can do is trust the schools, said Pat Raynor, communications director for Dorchester 2.

"I know parents, and I am one, and I know you want to know what's going on and we want our child to call," she said. "But our students should feel they're entrusted to us and they should feel secure that the teacher in the room, those assistant principals and the staff members will keep them safe. A parent wouldn't know what to do in a lockdown, but those people in the building are trained."

While cell phones can enable instant communication between parents and a child in an emergency situation, Turner said it is important for parents and students to realize that cell phones can cause more harm than good.

"They are a valuable communication tool," Turner said, "but they're not the perceived lifeline that people think they are, and it can cause more chaos than people can stop and think about."

County cell-phone policies

At Dorchester District 2, the cell-phone policy varies depending on the school level. Elementary and middle school students get two chances. The first time a student is caught using a cell phone, the phone will be returned to the parent. All other offenses result in the cell phone being confiscated and a student or parent paying a $25 fine to get it back, or the cell phone is retained for the remainder of the school year. High school students get only one chance — the phone is taken and it costs $25 to get it back.

This year, Berkeley County students caught using their phones the first time were given a warning and their phones confiscated. Parents could then pick up the phones from the school anytime. But if students were caught a second time, they were suspended for a day and their phones were confiscated until the end of the school year.

For Charleston County students caught using their cell phones, the device is confiscated but will be returned to the parent or guardian of the student at the end of school year or earlier. However, failure to retrieve the device within 30 days of the end of the school year results in the disposal of the cell phone.

For first offenders in Dorchester District 4, the phone is confiscated and may be picked up by a parent at the end of the nine-week grading period. The second time, the school keeps the phone until the school year ends.

Reach Caitlin Byrd at cbyrd@postandcourier.com or 937-5916.