Safety device or distraction? Debate over child tracking watches in the classroom


SYRACUSE, UT — Jennifer Steele keeps her 7-year-old daughter home from school every day with a GPS watch.

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

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

The then freshman was allowed to get off at the wrong bus stop, and Steele said she received little help from the school in tracking her down.

“When I finally found her, she was about three miles from our house, three miles from school,” Steele said.

Having lost faith in the Davis School District and its bus drivers, Steele took matters into her own hands by making sure her daughter went to school every day wearing the watch.

Jennifer Steele speaking to Matt Gephardt of KSL-TV (KSL-TV)

It worked for the rest of the school year, but when September came around, Steele ran into a problem.

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

Steele Elementary School policy is clear, stating that “private electronic devices…must be turned off as soon as the student arrives at school” and cannot be turned back on until “the student is not outside the building”. In addition, 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 rang at the end of the day.

Steele said the compromise didn’t work. Most of the time, the watch is still in her child’s backpack when she comes home. A few times she says she was left behind at school.

“Only one time did she come home with it on her wrist,” Steele said. “I called the district, and they said they wouldn’t give her permission to wear it, it’s district policy, and it looks like she needs a little more education and training on how to put on a watch. She is seven years old.

KSL investigators raised Steele’s safety concerns with Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams, who told us the policy was there for a reason.

“Nothing would prevent the technology from being installed after class ends while a student is getting on a bus and going home,” Williams said. “We don’t necessarily view devices being worn throughout the day as something we would necessarily want to see happen, as it may not necessarily help the student stay focused on their task. We want the student to make sure they are listening to the teacher.

Davis School District spokesperson Chris Williams explains the situation to Matt Gephardt of KSL-TV (KSL-TV)

In January, KSL’s Deanie Wimmer discovered how distracting electronics can be in the classroom, with an experiment to track how many notifications middle school students received on their cellphones during a lesson.

Students were bombarded, receiving 662 notifications for 30 students in 40 minutes. Pings to students’ cell phones were not only annoying, but it could sometimes take students 15 minutes to refocus on the class.

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

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

In September, parents lamented that Layton High School failed to communicate enough about what was happening when the campus was locked down due to a stabbing across the street.

The previous month, students had been applauded for reporting an unsafe situation at Granger High School through the SafeUT app. To do this, students should have their phones in their hands, not their backpacks.

Steele argued that unlike middle school or high school kids with multifunctional smart phones, his daughter is an elementary school student with a watch that has few functions. There are no apps, just pre-programmed phone numbers for tutors, and Steele has the power to lock it down during class hours.

Davis’ policy is similar to that of Utah’s largest school district, Alpine, which leaves electronic policies to individual schools. KSL received no response in our attempts to reach an Alpine spokesperson to clarify whether GPS watches are permitted.

Granite, Nebo, Jordan and Canyons school districts have all indicated that GPS watches are allowed in the classroom, as long as they do not disturb students.

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

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

In Steele’s case, the watch still has to stay in the backpack, despite his concerns. She hoped that further changes would be made to the policy for the benefit of her family and others.

“We should reasonably expect our children to be sent home safely to us when we send them to school,” Steele said. “When that doesn’t happen, we should be able to use the tools at our disposal to make sure it does.

Have you experienced something that you think just isn’t right? KSL investigators want to help. Submit your tip to [email protected] or 385-707-6153 so we can work for you.


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