According to proponents of a movement against in-school Wi-Fi, the technology has significant health impacts on some students. Though it's a matter of debate, the answer to whether the movement is grounded in science might not matter for school administrators: Districts can still be sued regardless of whether claims hold water.
Last December, a 15-year-old named Jenny Fry committed suicide in her native England. Fry's mother told the press that her daughter had suffered from a severely debilitating allergy caused by electromagnetic hypersensitivity syndrome. EHS is a condition in which electromagnetic radiation emitted from wireless technology, including Wi-Fi, cell phones and cell towers causes incapacitating physical symptoms.
For Fry, symptoms reportedly included blinding headaches, fatigue, concentration problems, and bladder issues. “Fry had shared information about Wi-Fi’s potential problems with the head teacher of Jenny’s school, Simon Duffy, but according to Fry, Duffy told her there was an equal amount of information that shows Wi-Fi is harmless,” Yahoo News reported on the case.
Still, EHS isn’t formally recognized as a medical condition, and a legal investigation into the cause of Fry’s death is now underway.
Her suicide generated a cascade of comments and sparked controversy online. Some ridiculed the teen’s condition, while others expressed sympathy. “I'm curious and not to be rude or disrespect some one who is now gone, but if she suffered the issue as stated why did she have a cell phone?” online commenter “Sadie” noted.
Last August, before the Fry case, the Washington Post reported that “science is nowhere near convinced that 'WiFi allergies' are legit,” calling EHS “a grab-bag of symptoms with no known cause.”
Yet across Europe, a movement to ban cell phones exists, and some nations like France already ban them from nursery schools and day care. That’s for a wholly different reason: to prevent any remote possibility that electromagnetic radiation emitted by wireless devices might cause cancers or affect children's brains, the U.K. Telegraph reported.
French court has also ruled that one 39-year-old woman is eligible for “nearly $900/month in disability benefits because of her struggles with so-called ‘electromagnetic hypersensitivity,’” the Washington Post noted. Others believe the risk to be non-existent, calling such concerns "cuckoo."
In the U.S., a movement against WiFi has much less momentum. A Facebook group entitled “Parents Against Wi-Fi in Schools,” for example, has around 2,300 likes.
“This page supports a healthier home and learning environment for children through the removal of currently mandated sources of radiofrequency radiation (RFR) exposure,” the group description reads, its header image decrying “Education not radiation!” and its profile picture inquiring “Why Fi?”
Admins for the page regularly post news and opinion pieces, including news on the latest happenings in Berkeley, CA.
Berkeley is unique in passing a July 2015 ordinance as part of its municipal code that mandates cell phone shops to post notices advising customers that keeping phones against their bodies might expose them to radio frequency radiation at a higher level than recommended by FCC guidelines.
But the problem is that no demonstrated health risk has been shown from cell phone radiation, PBS Nova reported.
Still, at the private Fay School in Southboro, MA, this past fall, a 12-year-old's parents sued after the boy became sick. The reason? The plaintiffs claimed that the "strength of its Wi-Fi signal" caused the illness.
School officials jumped through hoops to appease the family, including hiring a company to measure radio frequency levels and emissions safety compliance, but it still couldn't prevent them from ending up in court. The suit sought a quarter-million dollars in damages.
So what can districts to do ensure school communities and parents are at ease? Transparent policies around Internet utilization in the classroom can help.
In Maryland's Ashland Public Schools, guidance on Best Practices for Mobile Devices was implemented, in order to "keep safer distances and turn Wi-Fi off when not in use," noted amateur Wi-Fi researcher Cecelia Doucette, former president of the Ashland Education Foundation and grant coordinator for Ashland Public Schools, in an op-ed.
For those school systems worried about legal issues stemming from Wi-Fi, it’s also possible to have families sign a disclaimer or provide students the opportunity to opt-out of in-school Wi-Fi use.
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