Safety feature or distraction? Debate over kid-tracking watches in the classroom

Nov 17, 2022, 10:25 PM | Updated: 10:56 pm

SYRACUSE, Utah — Jennifer Steele watches to make sure her 7-year-old daughter makes it home from school every day, thanks to a GPS watch.

It’s not helicopter parenting for Steele. It’s to prevent what happened last spring from ever happening again.

“My daughter, last May, didn’t come home from school,” Steele explained.

The then-first grader was allowed to get off at the wrong bus stop, and Steele said she got little help from the school to track her down.

“When I finally found her, she was like three miles from our home, five miles from the school,” Steele said.

Having lost confidence in the Davis School District and its bus drivers, Steele took matters into her own hands, by making sure her daughter left for school each day wearing the watch.

Jennifer Steele speaking to KSL-TV’s Matt Gephardt (KSL-TV)

It worked for the rest of the school year, but when September rolled around, Steele encountered a problem.

“We got an email saying [the watches] are not allowed. They have to be powered off and put in their backpack,” explained Steele. “You can’t have them out during the school day at all.”

The policy from Steele’s elementary school is clear, stating “privately owned electronic devices… must be turned off as soon as the student arrives at school,” and cannot be turned on again until “the student is outside the building.” Additionally, the watch “must be stored in the student’s backpack” all day.

Steele said she worked with the school to reach a compromise: her daughter’s teacher would make sure the watch was back on her wrist and turned on when the bell rings at the end of the day.

Steele said the compromise isn’t working. Most days, the watch is still in her kid’s backpack when she arrives home. A couple of times, she says it’s been left at school.

“Only one time has she come home with it on her wrist,” said Steele. “I called the district, and they said they’re not going to give her permission to wear it, it’s district policy, and it sounds like she needs a little more education and training about how to put a watch on. She’s seven.”

KSL Investigators took Steele’s safety concerns to Davis School District spokesperson Chris Williams, who told us the policy is there for a good reason

“There’s nothing that would preclude technology to be put on after school is over while a student gets on a bus and goes home,” said Williams. “We don’t necessarily see devices being worn throughout the day as something that we would necessarily want to occur because that can be something that wouldn’t necessarily help the student stay on task. We want the student to make sure that they’re listening to the teacher.”

Davis School District spokesperson Chris Williams explaining the situation to KSL-TV’s Matt Gephardt (KSL-TV)

In January, KSL’s Deanie Wimmer discovered just how distracting electronics in the classroom can be, with an experiment to find out how many notifications middle schoolers received on their cell phones during one class.

Students were bombarded, receiving 662 notifications for 30 students in 40 minutes. The pings on student cell phones were not only distracting, but it could sometimes take 15 minutes for students to refocus on class.

KSL found numerous times where communication between parents and students in the classroom is important.

In January, parents told KSL they got word their kids were safe during a lockdown at Hunter High School because their kids texted them from their phones while in class.

In September, parents lamented that Layton High School didn’t communicate enough about what was going on when the campus went on lockdown due to a stabbing across the street.

The month before that, students were applauded for reporting a dangerous situation at Granger High School through the SafeUT app. To do so would require students to have their phones in their hands, not their backpacks.

Steele argued unlike middle or high schoolers with multifunctional smart phones, her daughter is an elementary schooler with a watch that has few functions. There are no apps, only preprogrammed phone numbers to guardians, and Steele has the power to lock it during class time.

Davis’s policy is similar to Utah’s largest school district, Alpine, which leaves the electronics policies up to each school. KSL received no response in our attempts to reach an Alpine spokesperson to clarify if GPS watches are allowed.

Granite, Nebo, Jordan, and Canyons school districts all indicated that GPS watches are allowed in the classroom, so long as they are not causing a distraction to students.

Williams said ultimately, it’s a case-by-case scenario if students are allowed to wear tracking watches in class.

“We will do everything we can to try to understand the situation and let the parents understand where we come from and to try to find a happy resolution,” he said.

In Steele’s case, the watch must still stay in the backpack, despite her concerns. She hoped more changes would come to the policy for the sake of her family and others.

“We should have a reasonable expectation that our kids are going to be sent home to us safe when we send them to school,” said Steele. “When that doesn’t happen, we should be able to use the tools at our disposal to make sure that happens.

Have you experienced something you think just isn’t right? The KSL Investigators want to help. Submit your tip at investigates@ksl.com or 385-707-6153 so we can get working for you.

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Safety feature or distraction? Debate over kid-tracking watches in the classroom