Cell jamming gives science teacher an important legal lesson

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Cell phone jammer
Bringing one of these into class will get you into more trouble than texting.
Photo: Cell Phone Jammers

A high-school science teacher has received a five-day suspension without pay for using a jammer in his classroom to block students’ cell-phone signals.

He can consider himself lucky, however, because he had actually violated federal law.

Dean Liptak was fed up with his students’ phone activities disrupting their attention, and he did not think the school district’s confiscation plan was any less distracting. He brought the device in to keep their noses in their books instead of on their screens, WTSP reports.

Unfortunately, despite Liptak’s claims that the jammer was only blocking reception in his classroom, it was actually affecting communication with the on-campus cell tower. This drew the attention of Verizon, which alerted school officials to the jammer’s presence.

In the suspension letter, district Superintendent Kurt Browning says that Liptak “posed a serious risk to critical safety communications as well as the possibility of preventing others from making 911 calls.” It also cites a previous, unspecified “lack of judgment” on Liptak’s part concerning “an instructional worksheet with inappropriate content” that he used with students.

In Liptak’s reply, he said that after conferring with a police deputy, he was under the impression that owning and using jammers did not violate state law. And they may very well not, but the FCC specifically says that “it is a violation of federal law to use a cell jammer or similar devices that intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications such as cell phones, police radar, GPS, and Wi-Fi.”

“My intent for using the device was to keep students academically focused on schoolwork,” Liptak writes. “It is counter-productive to stop instruction and lose academic focus when I have to tell a student to put his or her cellphone away. [. . .] If a student refuses to relinquish his or her cell phone, I have to write a referral and lose additional academic focus in my classroom.”

Verizon is not pressing charges, so Liptak will only have the unpaid week to deal with.

This is just one more skirmish in the battle for attention between people and screens, and wearables like Apple’s smartwatch will only add to the conflict. Checking your watch and being on your phone are two of the most socially frowned-upon things you can do, and combining them like the Apple Watch will only inspire more stern head shakes, finger wags, and utterances of, “Are you listening to me right now?”

Liptak’s jammer was only illegal, but it was overkill. In these cases, it falls to students to be respectful and teachers to be engaging. We do not need to bring the Feds into this.