Inside Higher Ed: Laptop and battery (arrest)

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

April 4, 2011

Professors trade stories about seizing the mobile phones of students who text during class or whose tones sound during a lecture.

Frank J. Rybicki, assistant professor of mass media at Valdosta State University, did the equivalent last week when he shut the laptop of a student who was allegedly web surfing as opposed to taking notes. She filed a complaint (reportedly about a finger or fingers that were hurt when he shut the laptop) and the university’s police arrested him on a charge of battery. The Georgia institution suspended his teaching duties there, although not his pay.

Reached on the phone, Rybicki confirmed his arrest and suspension, and said that he had been told by the university to not answer questions about the incident. He did say that the article and comments in the student newspaper, The Spectator, were accurate. The article quoted students who saw the incident as saying that Rybicki closed the laptop amid an argument with the student over his view that she had been on websites not related to the course.

The article also quoted students of Rybicki as saying that they were concerned that an outstanding professor had been arrested and might have his career disrupted. (Rybicki does not have tenure.)

Comments on the website said that the student had been warned to stop surfing the web and had ignored the professor. Generally, the comments were supportive of the professor and critical of the student. “Arrested for battery. For closing a laptop? Did it break the student’s fingers or something? I was thinking he hit a student with a computer. Simply closing it may be a little trivial to ruin a man’s entire life over, don’t ya think?” said one comment.

The comments from those saying that they were in class suggested doubt about the extent of the injuries to the student’s fingers and surprise that the incident had led to an arrest. Another comment said: “If this teacher shut the laptop so hard that her arms were somehow mangled, fine...but seriously, she had PLENTY...PLENTY of other options. A. Don’t be so rude in a classroom. B. If you are going to play on your laptop...either don’t take the laptop to class, or don’t take yourself to class. C. Do what the teacher says for half a second; he/she probably knows more than you do, so grow up and take some responsibilities; College isn’t another episode of High School where you can get away with being a distraction; some people here WANT to learn, if you don’t care...then get out! Or at least be somewhat polite.”

While he declined to discuss the incident specifically, Rybicki did answer a few questions. When asked if students shouldn’t look at non-class websites while in class, he said that that was “pretty obvious”. Asked if he had ever caused physical harm to any student, he said “absolutely not, never”.

Several students who were in the class said that they had been told by the university to not discuss the incident. The head of the faculty senate referred all questions to the university’s spokeswoman, Thressea H. Boyd. Via email, Boyd said, “The university is investigating an incident involving a faculty member and this matter will be processed through the appropriate legal channels. In terms of class instruction, modifications have been made. All employees are expected to perform their obligations and responsibilities in a professional manner.”

As to university policy on laptop use in class, she said that “the use of computers during classroom instruction is within the discretion of each professor at the university”.

Samuel Logan, a Valdosta State student who was not on the course, but who has taken other classes with Rybicki, said via email that he admired Rybicki. “He cares about his students and our grades, always making sure we do our best.” As for what reportedly happened in class, Logan said that an arrest “was not justified because he is a great teacher and she was on Facebook, when we know not to be on other sites while the teacher is teaching”.

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