Rabbi, I admit, I probably had it coming when my teacher finally confiscated my phone, which I was playing a tad too loudly in the middle of class. She was supposed to return it to me after two weeks, but now she says she can’t find it.
My question is: was she allowed to confiscate it? If she was, is she responsible to reimburse me?
Leaving the lectures about proper behavior to others, I’ll just address the issue at hand.
Is Confiscation Permissible?
According to Jewish law, one is not allowed to “take” an object from someone else, even if it is done as a practical joke with the intention of teaching a lesson (e.g., “Next time be more careful with securing your valuables”). It is considered stealing.
Some are of the opinion that this law applies to a teacher as well, and therefore a teacher may not confiscate an object from a student—unless it is potentially dangerous—even if it’s to teach him a lesson. It still, however, may be permitted for a teacher to take an item from a student and place it on her desk until the end of the class, since in this instance the teacher is not taking it for herself, and the student knows where the object is at all times.
Confiscation Is Permitted
Others make a distinction between a practical joker and a teacher. Parents entrust their child’s education to the teacher, so if a teacher were to not confiscate the items from the child when it is appropriate, the teacher would be guilty of not fulfilling her job properly.
Additionally, if after trying other discipline techniques it is clear to the teacher that only corporal punishment will be effective, then according to the letter of the law, the teacher is allowed to gently hit the child—so how much more so would the teacher be permitted to confiscate the student’s objects. [Please note: The subject of corporal discipline and when it may or not be permitted—and even if it is permitted, whether it is advisable—is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that in today’s age, it is extremely rare for it to be permitted.]
In this event, the teacher is generally still required to return the object (unless it is a dangerous object). Some, however, are of the opinion that if it is deemed that the only way to discipline the student is through permanently confiscating or destroying the object, then as a last resort that may be permitted. Others qualify this and say that it would only apply to relatively inexpensive objects. According to all, however, the teacher is forbidden to use the confiscated item without permission.
Assuming your teacher was permitted to confiscate the object (which is what most hold), the question of the teacher’s responsibility remains.
When your teacher signed up for her job, the agreement was that she would be paid to teach, not to guard phones. Therefore, she may be considered a shomer chinam (unpaid guardian) over any confiscated items in her possession. A shomer chinam is liable only for damages that occur due to his own negligence; he’s not liable if, through no fault of his own, the item is lost or stolen.
Therefore, in this case, if your teacher took the normal precautions (e.g., she put it the phone in a locked closet), but now it’s gone, your teacher isn’t liable for your lost phone. If, however, it was lost due to negligence, then she would indeed be required to reimburse you for your phone.
Having promised to leave the lectures to others, I’ll just end off with saying that hopefully this entire episode will serve as a catalyst for positive change.