Cell phone use is creating new problems in schools

Police say devices are distracting, are used to facilitate crimes

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2008 12:02 a.m. MDT

Granite Elementary School sixth-graders demonstrate their text messaging abilities outside of Classic Skating in Sandy on Friday.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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If a person goes to see a movie or play, there is normally a gentle reminder at the start for audience members to turn off their cell phones.

The problem is that text messaging and placing or receiving calls is a huge distraction to others.

Local police would like the same rule to apply to teens at school. Not only can cell phones be distracting to other students and teachers, but now police are coming across a growing number of incidents where the communication devices are also being used to help facilitate crimes.

From recording after-school fights to text bullying to teens sending nude photos of themselves to other teens, law enforcers say they're seeing cell phones used in ways that were never heard of several years ago.

"They're a huge hinderance to the educational process. Teachers go off about how disruptive phones are all the time," said Jordan School District spokeswoman Melinda Colton. "Based on the number of e-mails from teachers we've received the past few weeks, it's on the rise."

One Jordan School District official estimated 75 percent of students in middle and high school have cell phones. And the district fears cell phone companies will start focusing their marketing efforts on elementary school children.

For educators, most of the problems range from simple disruption to students texting answers to tests, taking pictures of tests and distributing them, to storing cheat sheets on their phones.

"(Cell phones) allow us to distribute information at a rate that has never been experienced before. Now society is going to have to adjust to this," said Cal Evans, executive director of compliance for the Jordan District.

But there have been several examples in recent weeks of cell phones being used for more than just violating school codes.

The problem of teens taking sexually explicit pictures with their cell phones and sending them to the cell phones of other teens received big media attention earlier this year in Davis County when the county attorney announced 28 teens from five junior highs and three high schools were being investigated.

Officials from several districts, however, say the problem is everywhere, not just in Davis County.

"We're seeing it more ... racy pictures going back and forth," said West Jordan Police Sgt. Greg Butler.

Earlier this month, a 16-year-old West Jordan High School student was charged with a felony for sending nude photos of himself to the cell phones of female students who didn't want them.

The problem of nude pictures and cell phones does not surprise Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"I've been warning parents for three years about 'porn in a pocket,"' he said.

Also in West Jordan, 24 students who recently witnessed an after-school fight were charged for encouraging the fighters. At least one of the students recorded the fight on a cell phone and showed it off to students at school the next day, Butler said.

Cell phones have "just created an atmosphere" for schoolyard brawls, he said.

"If they're recording criminal behavior for their entertainment or to post on YouTube, it's a problem," Butler said.

There are some Internet sites dedicated to nothing but people posting home videos of street fights.

"I've been hearing from people all over the state in every county (about similar problems)," Shurtleff said.

The attorney general said he agreed with the decision to charge the students who encouraged the West Jordan fight.

"It's sending a message there are consequences," he said. "At least make the kids think about it."

Another problem for educators is text messaging. Evans said some students send on average 200 to 400 text messages a day. Some students are so good at it that they can text while holding their phone under their desk without looking at the keys.

Where text messaging becomes a problem for law enforcers is when it escalates into text bullying, another serious issue that Shurtleff has been warning young people about for the past couple of years.

As technology advances, the problem is only going to get worse, Evans said. One area of concern is remote-controlled cameras being placed in locker rooms or classrooms, he said.

To battle these problems, law enforcers and school administrators say parents need to strictly monitor their son or daughter's cell phone activities and students need to be educated about the dangers and possible penalties.

"If you're going to let your kids have a cell phone with a camera, it's a huge temptation," said Shurtleff who noted a parent would be hard pressed to find a phone that didn't have camera or internet capabilities.

"Parents can say, 'Hand me your phone now' at any random time to check the latest activity on the phone. (Teens) need to know you're monitoring, otherwise there's all the temptation in the world."

Without accountability, Colton said teens view their phones as being more of a toy than a communication device.

Many school districts in Utah have policies that students cannot have their cell phones on during class. But banning cell phones from school altogether would not work, Evans said.

"It's not possible to totally enforce it. There's no use in establishing a policy that's impossible to maintain," he said.

Furthermore, many of the problems involving students and cell phones don't happen on school property. If a student takes a nude photo of him or herself at home and sends it to another student, it's not necessarily a school issue since it did not happen on school property.

Cell phones can be useful for teens when used properly, he said. They're good to have in emergency situations.

"We have to educate students on what is appropriate and inappropriate use of cell phones," Evans said. "The potential (to get in serious trouble) is certainly there."

But Evans admitted it was also "incredibly difficult to police all this stuff."

Butler, however, said once a student is caught, the evidence is almost foolproof because it's right on their phones — something teens may want to consider the next time they think about sending an explicit photo or recording a fight, he said.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com

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