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The Globe and Mail

School board to review policy on electronic devices after stabbing hoax

A student is embraced by a family member outside Sir Charles Tupper Secondary School in Vancouver after a teenage girl said she was stabbed. The story, which turned out to be bogus, caused the school to go into lockdown on Jan. 9, 2012.

Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

A false alarm sparked by a 14-year-old girl who fabricated a story about being slashed at school has led to a Vancouver School Board review of the use of cellphones, laptops and other electronic devices during a lockdown.

The student at Sir Charles Tupper High School in East Vancouver initially told police that she was attacked in the washroom and described her alleged attackers. Vancouver police kept students in their classroom throughout the afternoon as they searched for three suspects.

As soon as the school was locked down, some students went online to send out messages.

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After an investigation that ran through the evening and into the morning, officers concluded the girl's account of an attack was bogus, Vancouver police constable Lindsey Houghton said in a news release. The girl eventually told police there was no attack and her wounds were self-inflicted, he added.

The incident raised questions about whether students should be allowed to use electronic devices in their classrooms during a lockdown and how to balance a parent's right to know their son or daughter is safe in school with police efforts to end an incident safely.

Many high-school students have smartphones. Also, the students are encouraged to bring their laptops to schools.

"If someone is tweeting out what's happening in their classroom, or that they hear noises, that could obviously compromise security, and it's a concern for police officers," Kurt Heinrich, a spokesman for the Vancouver School Board, said in an interview on Tuesday.

School board chairwoman Patti Bacchus said tweeting and texting during a school lockdown is "a newish issue."

The board's current policy is for students to turn their cellphones to silent to ensure no noise would give away their whereabouts. Also, students and staff are asked not to use social media such as Twitter or Facebook during crisis situations so as not to compromise the work of police.

Tammy Lofstrom, chair of the school's parent advisory group, said use of social media in the school during a crisis is "a double-edged sword."

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Access to the Internet would be beneficial because students could play games with their friends during the lockdown, she said. However, following media reports of the lockdown on the Internet led to anxiety for some students.

"It's a wonderful tool, but sometimes it causes more chaos than is necessary," she said.

Ms. Bacchus said the board does not intend to restrict students from being in contact with their parents. The school board will follow the advice of police and other experts. "The No. 1 priority is the safety of the students," Ms. Bacchus said.

The board intends to review its procedures for use of social media in a crisis and ensure all staff are familiar with the policies and up to date, Mr. Heinrich said.

Kal Gill, principal of Sir Charles Tupper, said the students during the lockdown were told to put their electronic devices on their desks, but they could still communicate with their parents. The phones and laptops were not confiscated, he said.

The school does not expect to be in a position to stop texting and e-mails, he said. "That communication is going to happen anyway," Mr. Gill said.

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But the electronic devices could be used to reassure parents, he said. "It's best to allow students to engage in responsible communications with their parents," he said.

Mr. Gill, who took over as principal at Tupper at the beginning of the year, met with parents Tuesday evening at a previously scheduled event sponsored by the parents advisory group. Representatives from the VSB and VPD were in attandance and were available to ask questions.

The meeting, held one day after the lockdown incident, drew a much larger audience than other advisory-group events.

Some parents challenged the principal's suggestion that students could communicate with their parents during the incident. They said once their children placed their electronic devices on their desks, teachers wouldn't let the students use the devices again.

Vice-principal Tim McGeer said that most teachers had adopted the policy expected to be implemented by the VSB's review and allowed communication, although a few may have been absent when staff discussed that policy on a previous occasion.

Other parents expressed concern the incident had damaged the school's reputation.

Mr. McGeer said the school will closely examine the incident and use it as a teaching opportunity for both staff and students.

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