Editor’s Note: Repeated attempts to collect answers from BART administration were unsuccessful. Dean of Students Marygrace Brown referred The Greylock Glass to Executive Director, James White II, who referred us to Principal Erin Hattaway, who has not returned our messages. Calls to Christopher Tawes, Director of Technology went unreturned, while Mathematics teacher Kim Bragg reached out to us on Facebook, and then said she wouldn’t share any of her thoughts.
ADAMS — Parents with students enrolled in the Berkshire Arts and Technology (BART) Charter Public School were caught off guard by an item dropped casually into an innocuous January 21 newsletter. At least, parents who could spare the attention to the e-mail that arrived during the afternoon on a short Friday were surprised.
“I get so many fricken emails from them it’s so overwhelming,” confessed Rachel Reynolds, who didn’t catch the notice regarding a new surveillance tool added to student life.”
Among “Dates to Remember” and info about after-school clubs was this blurb:
SmartPass — Beginning next week, BART will begin using the digital hall pass system SmartPass. SmartPass is a digital hall pass system that replaces traditional hall passes such as sign-out sheets, wooden blocks, passbooks, and lanyards. SmartPass provides faculty and staff with accounting of which students are outside of the classroom during the school day. This will improve our accountability and overall safety of our students. For more information on SmartPass, click here.
“Oh interesting — I’ll have to look into it; I wasn’t aware…,” added Reynolds after reading the paragraph.
As it turns out, only one parent with whom The Greylock Glass spoke had noticed the language about the SmartPass in the e-mail.
“Well, I got a email about it but that’s it,” said Nicky Grandchamp, “I didn’t hear anything about it until then.”
Over and over, either because the newsletter was sent out on a short day, or because of the usual end-of-the craziness (or because it was sandwiched between the mundane fare of student clubs and the academic calendar) the note about the student monitoring app was overlooked.
“When did they send out information? I didn’t even see it.”
— Jenn Strange
“I have no idea what that is.”
— Ashley McLear
“We didn’t hear anything about it.”
— Meg Bossong
“I actually don’t know anything about it.”
— Amanda Gaudette
“I was not aware of this. What is this?”
— Sarah Jean
What the SmartPass is, at its most basic, is a software application that is one part student database and one part scheduler. Rather than handing out slips of paper, or sending students down the hall with embarrassingly large blocks of wood, the system works by having students install an app on their school-issued Chromebooks or other device, and another version of the app on teachers’ and administrators’ computers. When a student needs to request a trip to the restroom, he or she makes the request via the app. The teacher then approves or denies the request. The time it takes for a normal bathroom session (or walk to the water fountain, or nurses office) is pre-set, so that if the student is away from the room for too long, the teacher’s app display turns red when the timer is up as a warning that they may need to send someone to retrieve the dawdler.
A school district might say that the SmartPass is really no different than a physical pass (teachers have a perfectly good sense of how long it takes to get a drink of water) with the advantages that a school can now keep a record of how long students, individually and in the aggregate, are out of their seats. A touchless pass system, they could argue, is more sanitary than, say a woodblock that gets placed on a sink or the top of a urinal. Companies that push these systems play up the germy-ness of physical objects.
The problems for students come in when a trip to the bathroom can’t fall under the designated time limit. A student leaves for the bathroom for a #2, and things take longer than they thought. A girl’s period decides to arrive earlier than expected in the middle of geometry and she’s caught unprepared. A student has an accident and is trying to figure out how to clean up and hide the embarrassing evidence.
BART’s student population begins in sixth grade — twelve-year-olds typically. They’re still wee at that age, still learning how to be human, operate their awkward, changing bodies, navigate a new world severed from the feelings of security and comforts of grade school. One can imagine any number of situations in which the SmartPass timer goes off, a teachers calls administration to go retrieve the child, and the administrator stands in the open restroom doorway, demanding that the student, now humiliated and horrified, hurry up and get back to class.
These considerations are not idyl speculation.
Grandchamp notes that the stealthy nature of requesting a pass via the app could lessen a student’s embarrassment about asking, but has concerns about those unplanned bathroom events.
“My son is extremely shy,” she explained. “He use to have panic attacks whenever he had to present to the class or raise his hand for something (shaking cannot breathe), so the not asking in front of everyone could be useful, but there are better ways to do so.”
Of course, a student simply hearing the tick-tick-tick of the stopwatch in their mind may introduce a nervousness of its own.
And that exactly the concern that some parents have about the monitoring system.
“Right,” Gaudette says. “My daughter has sensory processing disorder and anxiety. I feel like being timed will only add to her anxiety.”
The biological annoyances of being “bladder shy” or “bowel shy” (an inability to relax enough to allow the body to do its thing on the john) is common enough among people who don’t identify as anxiety sufferers particularly. Children dealing with anxiety, parents worry, will end up victims of the clock.
“I specifically don’t like how it literally has a timer on how long each student is in the bathroom for, Grandchamp continued. “One of my concerns is, if one is having bathroom troubles (my son has them from time to time), and he’s out more than say, 2 minutes, will be be punished for it or will the teacher hold it against him?”
If a student has bathroom issues, the delayed return could mean a walk of dread back to class.
“If he’s out longer than the teacher likes,” she wondered, “will he come back to the teacher addressing that in front of the class and potentially embarrassing him and questioning him?”
When asked by their parent about the SmartPass experience so far, one student responded that it was “annoying” and that “all the teachers are being forced” to use it. The student also indicated that just because a child requests a bathroom pass via the app, that doesn’t mean that the teacher can or will grant that pass immediately. In other words, as has always been the case, teachers might respond to one request in 10 seconds and another student’s request in a few minutes. The discrepancy might have to do with the needs of the ongoing lesson or, as some students will surely wonder, it might have to do with the teacher’s bias against them.
McLear, displaying some stalwart, old-school, parenting doesn’t want her child risking the ill-effects of holding it for too long. “I’ve always told my daughter ya don’t mess around with something like that,” she said. “If an emergency arises during class then you just go, and I’ll handle it.”
Given how hard some students try to avoid causing trouble, there’s no guarantee that such common sense will prevail the day that a technical glitch or human error causes a request to fail to transmit to the teachers app before urgency becomes an emergency.
Whether or not the actual functionality of the system, as built and advertised, is in the best interest of student’s biological needs can be debated, the bonus features cross the line into the realm of behavior modification and social engineering.
On the SmartPass homepage, the company touts the ability of administrators and teachers to create a “Troublemaker” group. If a student who has been placed in such a group requests a bathroom break, the teacher will get an alert another student from that group is also out of class at that moment. The teacher, presumably, would tell the student that they’ll have to wait to relieve themselves. The issues that this feature raises are both numerous and odious.
The first, and most obvious, opportunity for a lumping of digital dossiers to do harm is through racial discrimination. Study after study after study confirms that students of color are disciplined with a higher severity and frequency than are White students. This glaring disparity isn’t always due to conscious actions, but that doesn’t make the damage any less, and the problem is only getting worse.
In a conversation with The Greylock Glass, former Pittsfield High School Principal Dr. Tracey Benson described the number of times that different groups of students would linger in the hallways between classes. Teachers walked past groups of dawdling White students to instruct groups of Black or Latino students to move along. Benson noted that over the course of a K – 12 academic career, the cumulative effect of so many micro (or not so micro) — aggressions can cause real harm to a student’s self image.
Bossong voiced her concerns about such, almost unavoidable, outcomes, “Well, there are 3 problems as I see it: disability justice, school-to-prison pipeline, and how surveillance tech is used disproportionately against low-income people and how when we uncritically adopt tech solutions to classic education problems, we’re habituating young people to all these things.”
With this empirical and anecdotal information at hand, parents could hardly be blamed for wondering if their children have been lumped into groups of kids who must never be allowed to interact, however fleetingly, in the hallway between classes.
Read more about digital hall pass systems in The Washington Post
A digital hall-pass app that tracks bathroom trips is the latest school software to raise privacy concerns
Companies who offer these digital hall passes suggest that this might be a good way for the school to cut back on conflict between members of rival gangs. The question, then, becomes: How capable are teachers and administrators of knowing who is or isn’t in a gang? Particularly since the majority of schools forbid the display of gang colors of any type on school grounds. Adults are notoriously inept at knowing what expressions, musicians, or actors are popular with teens, and the kids aren’t even trying to hide those things; imagine how well an actual gang member could hide their affiliations if they wanted to.
So, who has the authority to add kids to various “no-fly-together” lists? Just the assistant principal? All teachers? Some teachers? What about parents? Can parents call up the schools and say, I don’t want my son John interacting with this boy Carl with whom he’s been building a romance lately?
What about the police? Massachusetts already encourages the facilitation of “appropriate information-sharing” between law enforcement and school administrators. What is “appropriate,” however, is far from clear. What we know is that, unchecked, schools and cops will cross the line, as they did in the Pasco County School District last year, where school authorities provided the Sherriff’s Office with confidential data that the Sherriff’s office used to create a list of potential future criminals.
Bossong brought up the issue of human error corrupting the validity of the data itself.
“Right,” she said, “tech is only as good as the algorithms that make it up, and the suggestion of pattern-based policing has plenty of data behind its uses to advance bias at a systems level. I mean, we have times where [our son is] marked truant from a class when he had a doctor’s appointment because the class attendance didn’t get cross-referenced. That’s easy enough to correct, but when a program spits something out, it makes it seem undeniable.”
The Greylock Glass was unable to uncover how any of the data either that goes into the SmartPass system or the data generated by the system will be processed, stored, secured, shared, or destroyed because repeated attempts to gain answers were met with silence.
The only conversation The Glass was able to conduct with a member of the BART staff was with math teacher Kim Bragg, who said, “I am not interested in sharing thoughts at this time. I am not interested in sharing thoughts at this time,” and to “reach out to Erin Hattaway, the principal,” which of course, had already been attempted. She then went on to PM a long string of thoughts, which, unfortunately, can’t be published, as they fall under “off the record” status based on her declaration that she said she was “not interested in sharing thoughts.”
Unknown even is whether or not parents will be informed that their child has been place on a troublemaker list, whether their children were denied timely access to the restroom, or if parents will be notified when their children were disciplined for having been in the restroom two minutes too long.
Farfetched? Probably not, since parents seem not to have been consulted at all as the administrators were scheming to implement this new tool of surveillance with money most parents would assume was going directly toward education or facilities maintenance.
Kade Crockford, Director of the Technology for Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, spoke to The Greylock Glass previously on the subject of school surveillance. Based on what she’s seen, this approach is apparently a pretty standard way surveillance gets bolted onto the insides of hallways, cafeterias, classrooms, and buses these days. Crockford, works to protect First and Fourth Amendment rights and civil liberties in the digital 21st century, and focuses on how systems of surveillance and control impact society and individuals.
“Unfortunately, that’s all too typical. But it’s certainly troubling. Anytime government agencies are going to adopt new surveillance technologies to monitor any population, but particularly youth, there ought to be a public conversation about what authority intends to do, why they intend to do it, how much it’s going to cost, who’s going to have access to the surveillance data, how that information will be used, how it won’t be used. And there ought to be, ideally, a democratic process that governs whether those plans roll out at all. So I wouldn’t say that it’s uncommon. Unfortunately, far too common.”
Amelia Vance, Senior Counsel and the Director of Education Privacy at the Future of Privacy Forum, spoke to The Glass for the same article and noted that she has made similar observations of school administration behavior.
“This is not at all unusual,” Vance said. That’s been something that really did not strike me as strange at all. Very common. I haven’t heard of anyone doing a good job, necessarily, giving notice, not that that’s a great thing.”
All BART parents we spoke with expressed extreme displeasure at the lack of communication from the school about this new student monitoring system.
“Okay,” said Grandchamp, “so I think they definitely do have a responsibility to involve the parents in the decision. Anything to involve our children that causes a change in their school life but also monitoring them we should have a say.”
Strange agreed, “I think there needs to be way more informed input.” Like many parents, she’s baffled why a program that was mentioned so casually in a Friday newsletter, couldn’t have been put in front of parents ahead of time.
“I think the conversation is always important,” she affirmed.
As discussed in an earlier Glass article, experts are concerned that the penetration of so many hi-tech surveillance tools into daily life without notification or discussion will create the illusion of public consent, and to the normalization of 24 hour eyes on an increasingly captive civilian population. And when better to start that normalization than when children aren’t even old enough to fully understand the implications of always-on data harvesting.
Reynolds talked the matter over with her husband to hash out their thoughts.
“So they camouflaged it in the email,” she explained, “presenting it to us as an innocent digital hall pass — so they don’t have to carry a bulky pass etc., but really it’s just constant surveillance on our kids. It’s no surprise to us that they would be going this far now to get them ready for the future of how humans will be treated in this society. It’s very unfortunate to be molding our children this way.”
And, echoing the frustration expressed by many parents, she summarized, “We are not in agreement with this policy.”