Thursday, January 16, 2014

Schools, Yeshivos, and Cell Phone Policies by Rabbi Yair Hoffman

5 Towns Jewish Times   The conversation has probably come up in every household in America. What is the school’s policy regarding cell phones? Some schools require that a student’s cell phone be deposited with the school at the beginning of the day. Others completely forbid cell phones at school. Yet others forbid their use only during class time. Within the New York City public-school system, Chancellor’s Regulation A-412 §V prohibits all electronic devices in school. It is also a violation of the Citywide Standards of Discipline and Intervention Measures (discipline code B05).

How does halachah weigh in here? May a school confiscate a phone from a student? May the school dump the phone in the dreaded “fish tank”? May a principal look at the phone and determine whom the student has been texting in class and act upon this information? May a student possess and use a “decoy phone,” and when caught with a phone in hand after a text, deftly switch the real phone with the decoy phone, or is this a further violation of geneivas da’as—practicing deceit? (Legend has it that one enterprising young lady had six decoy phones taken away, only to have been ultimately caught when the bus driver texted her that he was planning on picking up the entire busload of students early—and she forwarded the information to her fellow students.) Also, what happens if the school principal or teacher confiscates the phone and loses it? Is there financial responsibility on the school’s part?

The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 245:10) discusses the exact parameters of corporal punishment, saying that a teacher may not use a rod to discipline a student but may only use a small retzuah (strap), so that it not be cruel or excessive. The same idea is cited in Choshen Mishpat (421:13), that if a child is placed under the guidance or supervision of another, that person may invoke disciplinary measures without resorting to a beis din. This idea is first found in the Terumas HaDeshen (#218). It would thus follow that a teacher or school would certainly be permitted to confiscate an item that is disruptive to the student’s education, and particularly when it may affect others.

However, just as there are limitations on the conduct of the teacher in terms of the degree of punishment that may be meted out, it would follow that there are also limitations on what may or may not be taken away (permanently) or destroyed. Modern poskim have ruled that a school may not permanently take away an item from a student, and that their responsibilities vis-à-vis the item in question are equivalent to that of a shomer chinam—an unpaid watchman (see Kisaos l’Beis Dovid, siman 90). Thus a “fish tank” policy may have some serious halachic (and legal) issues.

There may also be limitations on whether the school may search the violator’s phone as well, from both a legal and halachic point of view. Legally, for a public school to search a student’s phone is probably a violation of the Fourth Amendment (see New Jersey v. T.L.O., 469 U.S. 325, 1985). Halachically, it may be a serious problem as well.

Many people might point to the cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom (Rabbeinu Gershom ben Yehudah, 960–1040) that banned the reading of people’s private letters as the source for a halachic prohibition. There is actually another source as well. The Rama in Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat (154:7) rules that it is forbidden to look through a window inside someone else’s courtyard on account of the damage that one can do to him. It is clear from this ruling that even without the issue of the cherem d’Rabbeinu Gershom on reading the letters of others, there is a right to privacy in halachah as well. [....]

In conclusion, we must realize that even though schools practically stand in the place of parents in regard to educating our children, from a halachic point of view it is not so simple that the school has unlimited authority. The school certainly has the right to confiscate the phone and to punish the student by not giving it back for a while, but it seems clear that the phone must ultimately be returned. Looking at the contents of the phone is also quite problematic from a halachic point of view. Of course, the student should not violate the rules of the school, nor should a decoy phone be used.


  1. There are simple answers to all these problems:
    1) Let the school set specific rules at the beginning of the year as a condition of attendance. The policy could include whether or not cell phones can be carried in the school and whether or not the staff has the right to seize and examine the contents of the phone.
    2) Let the school remind the student that he is not a person that is so important that he needs to be available to the world RIGHT NOW. Honestly, how did we cope back in the day when, if a person was out, you had to wait for him to come home and answer the phone?

  2. Are all of these rights not subject to waiver? I assume that many schools have these rules agreed upon as a condition of attendance?
    Joel Rich

  3. Would it not be great if we could confiscate kids tongues when they speak lashon ha,ra or inappropriately. The problem with cell phones is they are primarily a social medium and not a learning medium.
    Nancy Willard says about internet use and internet safety. 'We have to be pro-active in changing the way kids think of the internet - as a learning tool or a social tool.

    'We will NOT be able to effectively prepare students for their education, career, and civic responsibilities in the 21st Century if the technical services directors in schools throughout this country continue their heavy handed filtering.

    It is essential to shift how the Internet is being managed from a primary reliance on filtering to more effective monitoring - in an environment where education - not social - use of the Internet is expected, and supported with effective professional and curriculum development.'

    The same goes for cell phones and all other media.

    1. > Would it not be great if we could confiscate kids tongues

      Halevai we could also do that to adults!

  4. When you try to make comparisons in Halacha, you have to first get a 'Feeling' of the nature of what's happening. Otherwise, some dry computer comparisons end up rather absurd. Imagine a guy who brakes onto someone's house and locks himself into a room in order to have privacy as he is planting a bomb, and when the owner wants to peep through the keyhole, the thug notices and yells "CHEREM D'RABBEINU GERSHOM!" A child who is breaking a rule using a phone in school is already suspect to serious violations. If he is texting, his violations could potentially be VERY serious. He might be the wolf who is devouring and destroying the flock. ALL precautions must be taken to prevent any spiritual damage to other students. If the school is silly Frum and doesn't want to violate this offenders rights, they are B'Geder Chossid Shoiteh, and any further damage is on their conscience. In the secular legal system there are far too many rights for criminals. Yidden who follow the Chochmas Hatorah should know better.

    1. What about the Gemarain Makos that frees a rebbi from Golus if he kills the student when disciplining him. The gemorah says even if the child is learning well the Rebbi is off the hook. Certainly human life is more valuable than a cell phone. Shouldn't that be a basis to free the Rebbi or school from any monetary compensation?

    2. In other words, thanks to Katche-lab's incisive justifcations, if that student's action has occasioned me, the teacher, worrying about some awful consequence, then I may go ahead and act out any way I think suitable to counter his imagined threat. Even raising against me questions of propriety reveals the questioner to have fallen prey to the naarish hashkafa of those silly goiyim, who think not as clearly as Katche-lab.

      Clearly, there is no wrong the teacher in such a situation can do, because it's all the student's fault for breaking a single rule, and that student wrong-doer is guilty of whatever wild outcome I conjure up, for as long as he's so suspected.

      B"H thanks to this eminent line of thought I need no longer hesitate in acting out on those under my power, confident as I am in the clarity of Katche-lab's "chochmas haTorah".

      The only question I'm left with: How did he manage to reach a conclusion so powerful without once bringing to bear any piece of actual Torah?
      Truly, a wondrous mind at work....

    3. There is a large selection of varieties of apples and oranges being mixed in your basket. I thought a rational person would understand what I'm saying and what I'm driving at, but it seems you need me to clarify more.

      First of all, we aren't discussing the right for an individual teacher to take the law into his own hands and do however he, as an individual sees fit. We are talking about what is correct and appropriate to be set as a rule for all individual teachers to follow.

      Second of all, You began with the phrase "In other words". That is correct, they are other words than what I said. I didn't authorize to "go ahead and act out any way I think" I am referring specifically to the issue of an object, which was used to break the rule, to be investigated to uncover the extent to which the rule was broken.

      Third of all, you say "I need no longer hesitate in acting out on those under my power" This opens up an entirely different issue altogether. If the person implementing this punitive action is a power hungry immoral person, then obviously we should not be giving him the reigns to act. He should not be a teacher to begin with. Any correct measure can be corrupted by corrupt individuals. I am only speaking to well meaning Mechanchim who want to know what is right. Of course, it goes without saying that any information obtained, and the entire process, will be dealt with in the highest level of discreteness and correctness. Put it this way, I THOUGHT it goes without saying, but apparently It needs to be said for those who don't understand.

      To answer your only question, I say that it is not the powerful conclusion that you attack me of, because you misunderstood and changed what I said, as explained. But if you Davka want a source which gives rights to implement such rules of action, you can see Choshen Mishpat Siman 2. If you don't want to just argue, but you are honestly wanting the truth, you will find there the basis of what I'm saying plus much more.


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