The ritual of handing students a written hall pass probably hasn’t changed much since schools were first created—unless you count the invention of laminating machines that made paper passes more durable.
In the last couple years, though, many schools have brought digital innovation to this seemingly simple process, namely by adopting electronic hall pass systems. One key selling point: It helps schools counteract some problems exacerbated by social media—including a spate of school vandalism incidents inspired by viral TikTok posts—by allowing better tracking of hallway activity.
Proponents of the approach say it’s an easy win to help prevent students from abusing more-informal paper systems. But some digital-privacy advocates worry that the trend may create data trails that could be used against underprivileged students and ultimately create oppressive school environments.
The public school system in New Kensington, Pennsylvania, is among those that have adopted digital hall passes. Students who want to use the restroom or visit the library or other office now pull up an app on their iPad and bring it to the teacher, who keys in his or her access code to grant permission. A digital timer then begins to tick up, showing anyone who might see the student in the hallway how long they’ve been out of class, along with other details of the request. Every student in the school already has a school-issued iPad, so it’s just another option on those student devices.
“We were seeing a lot of kids strategically ask to go to the bathroom to meet up with other friends in the hallway,” says Christopher Sefcheck, superintendent of the New Kensington-Arnold School District. “It’s a filter to help us eliminate some of those things.”
For instance, a school official can change settings in the electronic hall pass system to prevent certain students from getting a pass at the same time. And the system can notify officials if a student is asking to leave class with unusual frequency, which might have gone unnoticed in settings where students have different class periods with different teachers throughout the day.
One reason the Kensington-Arnold School District introduced the system was a rise in vandalism incidents in bathrooms inspired by a TikTok challenge that has been circulating since last year egging on students to do things like steal toilet paper, rip soap dispensers from walls or break mirrors. Those vandalism incidents had died down by the time the hall pass system was put in place because of tougher punishments for offenders, says Sefcheck. But he hopes that the new system will keep them from recurring, and he hopes it will reduce the number of fights.
There are other benefits too, he adds. The system can be set to trigger a reminder on student iPads when they have, say, a counseling session, and automatically generate the needed hall pass. That can prevent students from forgetting to attend needed care.
Not everyone is sold on the need to digitize hall passes, though, and some see a darker side to the tech.
“One concern I have is, once we start tracking kids throughout their day, is there already in place specific guidelines for what is considered worthy of disciplinary action and what is not?” asks Monica Bulger, a senior fellow at Sesame Workshop who studies child rights. She worries that absent such clear guidelines, the new data could be used to unfairly target students based on the biases of officials.
“For the most vulnerable populations in schools, what are the unintended consequences?” she asks. “Are there usual adolescent things that teens engage in that are now going to be penalized [more harshly]?”
Some parents have even started online petitions calling for their schools to stop using electronic hall passes. One such petition, signed by nearly 200 people, called the systems “creepy,” arguing that “students don’t deserve the extra stress of considering how their bathroom break will be perceived by others when they leave the classroom.”
Proponents of the approach, though, say that school officials have always monitored student behavior in hallways, just not as effectively.
“We could have someone in the hallway all day if we wanted to do that—we could just sit in the hallway and watch,” says Sefcheck, the school superintendent. And he says the digital system can reduce interruptions, since students fill out the passes online. “We were always writing passes for kids. Now the teacher doesn’t have to stop class to write out a pass.”
The school uses a system called e-hallpass, by a company called Eduspire Solutions, founded by Nathan Hammond, a former classroom teacher of 20 years. He argues that bringing data to the process will increase fairness at schools rather than help target certain students for discipline.
“A principal would be in the hall and think ‘that’s a good kid’ [and not ask for a pass], or there’s another kid who says ‘you’re always picking on me,’” says Hammond. With e-hallpass, he argues, a school official just looks at their iPad to see which kids are currently allowed in the hall, rather than have to ask students whether they are supposed to be there.
He says many schools have students they refer to as “frequent fliers” who ask to be out of the classroom more than others. The electronic systems lets officials see patterns based on data rather than anecdotes and guesswork, and set limits for individual students. ”You can take a list of frequent fliers that the team will provide and give them one pass a day or four passes a day,” he adds. “So you can just limit how often these kids are in the hall.”
Schools that adopt the technology tend to report that their hallways are less crowded during classes, says Brian Tvenstrup, president of Eduspire Solutions.
Tvenstrup says that some critics have criticized the company for tracking students, but he argues their technology does not do any movement tracking.
Released in 2013, e-hallpass was the first company to offer the service and is now in 1,000 schools, company officials say. Other competitors have emerged, but the vast majority of schools still use pen and paper.
“Our biggest obstacle to selling,” says Tvenstrup, “is when a school isn’t culturally ready to make these kinds of changes yet.