A student was called into principal Chris Mastrangelo’s office at Malden High School for a meeting. The subject: 41 days into the school year, the student had missed a total of 11 hours and 42 minutes of classroom instruction while using a bathroom pass. Of the 44 times the student had used a pass, 40 took longer than the seven minutes allowed for bathroom breaks.
How did the Mastrangelo possibly calculate this information down to the minute? He used a technology coming to more and more Massachusetts schools: digital hall passes.
Struggling to prevent teen vaping, vandalism, and other unacceptable behavior in restrooms, some schools, including Malden High, are turning to digital hall passes as an alternate to hall monitors or locking bathrooms.
Proponents say the technology is convenient and necessary following an increase in behavioral issues amid students’ return to in-person school after the pandemic shuttered classrooms across the country. But student privacy advocates warn digital hall passes are a new form of surveillance that is creating more problems than it is solving.
At least 25 Massachusetts schools, including at least two in Boston, use an app called SmartPass to keep track of which students are in and out of class.
Students log their destination into the app, how long they will be out of class, and from which classroom they’re leaving, without having to raise their hand to ask permission or disrupt instruction for other students. The teacher then gets this record sent to their device and the countdown for returning to class begins. The app can be accessed on laptops to prevent smartphone use in school.
At a cost of $2.99 per student, administrators say the technology is an affordable option that ensures students return to instruction in a timely manner.
But it also could send students a message that administrators don’t trust them, said Kade Crockford, director of ACLU Massachusetts’ Technology for Liberty Program.
“It teaches young people that they ought to expect to be tracked by digital technologies used by authority figures,” Crockford said. “And that’s pretty much the opposite message that we should be sending people in a democratic society.”
Crockford argues that technologies like SmartPass are “technological ‘quick fixes’ to address what are fundamentally human problems” that aren’t so easily solved.
Mastrangelo said school leaders are not trying to restrict the amount of times a student goes to the restroom with SmartPass, but are using the technology to change behaviors keeping students out of the classroom.
“We’re not violating privacy,” he said. “Really, what we’re looking at is how long, how many times, and how often a kid is leaving the classroom; whether it’s for bathroom pass, hallway pass, nurse pass, or going to another teacher.”
Each school determines how long and how many students can be out of class at once using the SmartPass.
At Malden High, the student wasn’t disciplined. Mastrangelo said he doesn’t want the data from electronic passes to be used punitively, but instead as an opportunity to discuss the need to stay in class.
Britt White, vice president of sales at SmartPass, said digital hall passes are not as surveillance-oriented as some make them out to be.
“There’s no GPS on any students here. It is the same thing as we’ve been doing for centuries, which is writing the paper passes; we just made it digital,” White said. “We don’t know [exactly where students are]. Nothing like that is happening with SmartPass, nor would we ever want to do that.”
Chaimaa Assli, a senior at Malden High School, said she doesn’t believe SmartPass is an invasion of privacy, nor has she heard that complaint from her classmates; however, she’s still weighing whether the app is a net positive.
“I get that there’s a lot of issues behind too many people being out of class and they want to make sure there aren’t any incidents,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s just kind of annoying that we have to sign out every single time you want to go somewhere.”
From an administrator’s point of view, the app has other benefits: It can create “encounter prevention groups” which stop certain students with troubled relationships with one another from being out of class at the same time, preventing hallway fights. It also cuts down on interruptions to teaching in the classroom and reduces the need for staff to constantly monitor the halls.
Most importantly for Mastrangelo, SmartPass has cut back on the amount of students out of class.
Jason Kelley, associate director of digital strategy at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit addressing civil liberties issues in the digital world, said despite these perceived benefits, digital hall passes are probably hurting more than helping.
“I don’t think bathroom Big Brother is solving any real problems that exist, but it is potentially creating new ones,” Kelley said.
He worries that data from apps like SmartPass could be misused like many other rules and disciplinary measures that disproportionately affect students of color or those with behavioral issues. Kelley said the apps may also spark anxiety in students with health issues that make going to the restroom in a limited amount of time difficult.
Kelley said he is also concerned that schools using these apps will leave a permanent record “of every time [a student] went to the bathroom. I don’t know that anyone needs to have that.”
White said SmartPass does not “do anything with that data.” As for the schools, each can decide what to do with the information it collects, which is password protected, she said.
Regardless of the controversy, Assli said SmartPass has succeeded in curtailing bathroom behavior issues. “People from my school aren’t going to like this, but it is working for the most part,” she said.
If this is the case at every school, it may not be long before digital hall passes are the norm instead of a novelty.