MHS Administration incorporates SmartPass into school routines

Tanya Keskar | Managing Editor

Alisha Soni | The Chronicle

SmartPass: an additional layer of security or a major inconvenience?

As national school security becomes an increasing priority for school officials, Mason High School (MHS) is making significant structural changes to protect its students. Implemented on November 2, 2022, SmartPass is a digital hall pass system that requires students to create a pass and receive teacher approval if they need to leave the classroom. However, students can self-approve passes to go to the restroom or drink water. 

MHS Assistant Principal Dan Distel said that SmartPass may help reduce discipline issues, but the primary goal of SmartPass is to ensure that students are accounted for during an emergency situation.

“In a moment, I can know there are 20 kids out in the building that might not be with a teacher,” Distel said. “The district is putting together systems to be able to communicate with families [about] where their child is located.The SmartPass system allows us to very quickly access that information.”

While campus supervisor Taylor Hitzfield is monitoring hallways, he said that SmartPass will help him verify students’ locations throughout the day, encouraging accountability.

“Ultimately, it’s for the best,” Hitzfield said. “The growing pains are real, but if [students] actually embraced it, then it would be a win-win for both teachers and students.”

Other schools in Ohio have had a similar system in place. Bishop Fenwick High School (Fenwick) has been using a digital hall monitoring pass called e-Hall pass since the fall of 2021, initially for COVID-19 contact tracing, but it has stayed at the school well into the 2022-23 school year. With approximately 470 students, Fenwick Assistant Principal Jason Umberg said that he knows most of the students by name and does not have to continuously check passes.

“We don’t have a hall monitor,” Umberg said. “We don’t have a lot of traffic in the hallways to begin with. We have a different atmosphere [than MHS].”

At Fenwick, all teachers were given a second computer to use for monitoring hall passes, and students can create passes for drinking water or going to the restroom on a school-provided computer. Students are given three passes a day by default, a number that was adjusted as more data was collected from e-Hall pass. Like Distel, Umberg said that the passes are there as a way to track students in the event of an emergency and provide a second layer of accountability.

“[E-hall pass] is just part of [our] system,” Umberg said. “We’re always looking for ways to be safer and have better accountability for what’s going on during the day. We put the responsibility on the students, [and they] realized we weren’t tracking them all day every day.”

Milford High School, located in Clermont county with an estimated two thousand students, introduced e-Hall pass three years ago. Kristine Kauffman, Milford’s Assistant Principal for 12th grade, said that all passes require teacher approval.

“It has proven to be a really effective way to track students as they move about the building,” Kauffman said. “It’s a time-saver.”

Unlike MHS and Fenwick, Milford implemented e-Hall pass to increase student accountability. Kauffman said that Milford needed e-Hall pass to decrease a high volume of disciplinary issues, such as students skipping class or creating fake hall passes.

“I think in a true emergency situation, fear and adrenaline will kick in and all of that planning and organization would go out the window,” Kauffman said. “[However], let’s say a classroom had an emergency, and we weren’t sure which kids were in there, we would be able to use the hall pass to connect those kinds of dots.”

While MHS administrators focus on using SmartPass to prepare for an emergency, MHS teachers and students evaluate its day-to-day effectiveness.  Mathematics teacher Nikki Harting said that while she acknowledges the adjustment SmartPass requires, she believes the benefits outweigh the slight inconveniences. Harting said that she uses the SmartPass kiosk mode so students can sign themselves out on her spare Chromebook without interrupting class or using their phones. 

“I don’t like [students] having their phones available to them at all times during class,” Harting said. “I think the kiosk mode will definitely eliminate having to worry about phones at all. The idea of [students] having to get a Chromebook out isn’t typical in my classroom setting.”

As a student of Harting’s AP Calculus AB class, senior Cole Vernon has said that he recognizes how much quicker it was to visit the restroom or get a drink by simply asking a teacher for permission, but ultimately does not find it very troublesome to create a SmartPass.

Using SmartPass, teachers are able to identify patterns regarding a student’s number of passes or length of time out of the classroom, allowing them to take action if necessary. Vernon said that he does not have any concerns with SmartPass being able to identify his patterns. 

“I don’t care whether they know where I am or not, since I’m not skipping class or anything,” Vernon said. “I understand why they’re doing SmartPass. I heard it’s for people who go out and then come back 30 minutes later and nobody knows where they went, [but] that’s not me.”

While SmartPass has become integrated into Vernon’s routines, students in non-traditional classrooms are having a tougher time. Bhuvan Meruga, MHS senior and Comet Zone employee, said that he understands the rationale behind SmartPass, but believes it will be very inconvenient when implemented. For SmartPass to work with the spaces that Comet Zone students often visit, Distel helped create special passes for specific locations that the students can self-approve. However, with Comet Zone students constantly hanging up posters, painting in hallways and meeting with teachers, Meruga said that SmartPass creates additional issues.

“Even though [SmartPass] is meant to streamline the processes in the classroom, I feel like it does the opposite,” Meruga said. “In a place as busy as the Comet Zone, just asking [Dr. Scalfaro] for approval on all of those makes it really, really difficult to get work done.”

Health and Physical Education teacher Bill Lapthorn said that he believes that SmartPass might inadvertently promote excessive phone usage. Lapthorn said he is already concerned about the rising integration of phones in schools, as he understands the distraction that phones can create in a learning environment.

“As an adult person who’s teaching 30 kids, part of me wants to look at [my phone],” Lapthorn said. “As a student who’s sitting there, listening, [and] that phone buzzes in your pocket, it’s kind of hard not to take a look and see what’s going on.”

SmartPass can be accessed on a Chromebook, but the instructional video that introduced the program to students encouraged them to use their phones for convenience. Hitzfield said that he does not think SmartPass pressures students to obtain phones for SmartPass if they don’t previously have one, as SmartPass is accessible on school-issued Chromebooks that are already integrated into the MHS atmosphere.

“If [students] had to use their Chromebook [for SmartPass], it might be just a little bit more inconvenient [than a phone], but I don’t think it’s impossible,” Hitzfield said.

As the national conversation around school security develops, school districts are trying to take preventative action. Lapthorn said that he anticipates SmartPass continuing to evolve throughout the future.

“I think we’re trying to be ahead of the curve with a solution instead of just identifying the problem,” Lapthorn said. “Maybe this is version 1.0. But by the time we get to 3.0, we’ll have it down.”

Graphic by Alisha Verma