Iowa law blocks school's call for jamming device

(MPR photo/Tom Weber)
(MPR photo/Tom Weber)

A small northern Iowa school district has hung up on a plan to block students from using their cell phones in class.

The St. Ansgar school board proposed buying a jamming device to keep students in the combined middle and high school from calling and texting during class, but the idea died because of a federal law that outlaws use of such equipment.

"As far as we are concerned it's a moot point right now and we're not going to pursue it at all," Jim Woodward, the superintendent of the St. Ansgar school district, said Friday.

St. Ansgar, which already has banned cell phones, is not the first district to weigh using a jamming device to keep students from using them in class.

The Penn Hills district in Pittsburgh considered jamming cell phones last spring but dropped the idea after learning of the Federal Communications Commission law. The Mead school district near Spokane, Wash., bought a jammer for less than $100 and conducted a three-day test before learning it was illegal. In Canada, the Port Hardy Secondary School on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, also conducted a test that was abandoned because of legal concerns.

Even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has suggested jamming wireless signals to keep students from using their cell phones during class.

But under current law, the FCC can only grant federal agencies not state or local authorities permission to jam cell phone signals. The jamming devices prevent cell tower transmissions from reaching phones.

Correctional leaders from more than two dozen states recently signed a petition asking permission to jam cell phone signals inside state penitentiaries and thwart inmates' forbidden phone calls.

In the case of the schools, officials said they were frustrated that students kept using phones in class despite the ban.

"I don't think they have a place in the educational environment," said Ed Kleinwort, a member of the St. Ansgar school board. "The educational environment is supposed to be about students learning and teachers teaching and teachers can't teach over a cell phone. If a student is busy on the cell phone they aren't learning."

He likened it to a student chewing gum or wearing an offensive T-shirt in class.

"It's a distraction ... and we need to minimize the distraction," Kleinwort said.

Donnie Thorson, whose son graduated last spring from St. Ansgar, said school officials took away his son's cell phone after he was caught using it in class.

"Somehow they have got to keep those kids from texting during class," he said.

James Hendrickson, a physical education teacher at St. Ansgar, said cell phones are a huge problem, with some classes being interrupted almost every other hour. Even his class is not immune from interruptions.

"When I have activities and they don't change and have their backpacks with them or their pants on, once in a while it happens," Hendrickson said.

Woodward, the superintendent, said cell phones will continue to be a problem as long as students bring them to school.

"It's an addiction for some kids," he said.

He also raised concerns with continuing advancements in technology, suggesting they could make it easier for students to cheat.

"You never know with the capability that cell phones have today," Woodward said. "That means the playing field isn't level anymore."

Woodward believes jamming cell phones would be an effective way to deal with the problem but said the school won't do anything different.

"I guess we'll just go back to the honor system," he said.

MICHAEL J. CRUMB, Associated Press Writer

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