‘It’s Insane’: Big Telecom Pushes Bad Cell Tower Deals on ‘Literally Hundreds’ of Schools

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by Suzanne Burdick, Ph.D., Childrens Health Defense:

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series on how the wireless industry is targeting schools for wireless infrastructure installation. Part 1 covers the recent surge and why parents are fighting back.

Telecommunications companies are targeting school properties as prime locations for installing cell towers, antennas and other wireless infrastructure — and many schools are taking the bait, said attorney Robert Berg.

Berg represents parents in multiple lawsuits challenging proposals for cell towers or wireless antenna placements at their kids’ schools.

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He told The Defender that “literally hundreds” of U.S. school boards have signed long-term leases with telecom companies.

“The school board members think it’s easy money,” Berg said. The school leaders rent out bits of school property to the wireless companies — such as a small site next to an athletic field or space on the school roof — for a monthly fee.

Many times school leaders have “no idea what they’re doing.”

“They lock themselves into bad contracts that can last for decades, at below market rate terms,” Berg said. “Meanwhile, the cell towers are irradiating all the kids, the staff and the teachers the entire school day, along with the surrounding neighbors 24/7.”

Parents frequently don’t learn of the deal until after it’s been signed — and then it’s too late, he said.

One of Berg’s cases involves what he called “a nightmare scenario” in Wyandotte, Michigan, where the school board, after literally 48 seconds of discussion, approved a contract with T-Mobile to pay the district $1,000 a month to operate a “massive array” of wireless antennas on the chimney atop Washington Elementary School.

Parents didn’t find out until the antennas were being installed. They protested, but the school board and superintendent insisted the contract would not be broken.

Parent dissatisfaction grew so great that the superintendent was forced to resign. The new superintendent asked T-Mobile to move the antennas to a district site — and the superintendent offered to build a taller cell tower for T-Mobile at the district’s expense.

T-Mobile refused.

Several parents sued to prevent T-Mobile from activating the antennas. The parents initially succeeded in court, but then the court dismissed their suit and allowed T-Mobile to turn on the antennas.

“The parents have appealed the decision,” Berg said, “but in the meantime, parents of about 20% of the pre-antenna student population have pulled their kids from the school, many transferring them to other schools or districts, and some selling their homes and moving from the city.”

Jenny DeMarco, co-founder and communications director for Virginians for Safe Technology, told The Defender she “accidentally” discovered that her kids’ private school had been sited for a cell tower. “They never disclosed this to the parents who paid tuition.”

“So I ended up making flyers,” she said. “My husband and I stood in the parking lot lines and handed out the flyers” informing parents of the school’s plans.

Enough parents found out about the proposed cell tower, that school leaders were “forced to address it,” DeMarco said. Although the school administrator evaded DeMarco’s attempts to determine if and when a contract was signed, the tower hasn’t gone up.

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