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App That Times Bathroom Breaks Stirs Controversy at Fresno High

Some students feel unfairly restricted by Fresno Unified School District's use of an app to regulate their trips outside classrooms during instructional periods. They are allowed two seven-minute bathroom breaks per day.

Fresno High School
Fresno High School, shown Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022 in Fresno.
Eric Paul Zamora/TNS
(TNS) — Oliver Buchanan, a 10th grader at Fresno High, is using his first bathroom privilege for the day. He inputs his student ID number into an app and if the system detects fewer than 25 students campus-wide are on bathroom trips, the screen turns green and the countdown begins. He now has seven minutes for the bathroom trip.

He goes down the stairs — Fresno High only allows students to use the two bathrooms on the ground floor located on the south and north sides of the campus. He might find some kids smoking in the bathroom. He might find some doors locked due to maintenance or the school might be investigating a bathroom incident. He might need to wait for the line.

But he’d better come back to the classroom soon and put in the code again to stop the timer. If it goes over time, he would lose his bathroom privileges.

“If you have the tendency to take eight minutes in the bathroom, instead of the seven that you’re getting, ‘We’re gonna take away your bathroom,’” Buchanan said. “Teachers are starting to get strict with it, because the app also helps the school realize what teachers are letting students go out longer.”

Fresno High is the latest school in the district to roll out the 5 Star Students app to regulate student trips outside classrooms during instructional periods. Students are limited to two seven-minute bathroom breaks during the day, and the app keeps track of the time they spend outside of classrooms.

The app was piloted in several middle schools in earlier years and has now been adopted by Fresno Unified School District’s safety and security department to impose on all middle and high schools this year. It aims to promote campus safety and learning engagement. Some teachers find it effective, while students generally dislike it.

“I gotta admit, I was a little skeptical, but there are not as many students out there wandering around, there’s not as much socializing going on (outside of class),” said Peter Beck, Fresno High’s social studies teacher. “I think partially that’s because they’ve kind of worried about what happens if a campus assistant notices and goes looking for them.”

There are objections to managing bathroom breaks via an app, because it might involve emergencies or medical reasons. Some also argue against the technology’s downside of data collection and privacy invasion. But those who support it say the app is nothing more than a timer and they point out that it’s not an actual location tracker.

The app acts like a digital ID and every student in each participating school has a profile that includes a headshot. Fresno High mandates that students with smartphones download the free app. It’s also used to timestamp student attendance, in general, in addition to monitoring time spent on bathroom breaks. The app registers when a student enters the campus in the morning, as well as when and for how long a student might leave the classroom. Fresno High students said they can download the app on their phones or tablets, but it’s handy on the phones because they can scan the digital ID instead of manually filling out the information to record a tardy for school in the morning.

During instructional periods, students apply their bathroom passes through the app. If the student sees the screen turn green and the countdown starts, the student is allowed out of the classroom and can pass through patrolling campus assistants, who closely monitor all students’ timers and check students’ hall passes. When returning to the classroom, students reenter their ID codes so the app can record the time they spent outside of the classroom.

Beck said his classroom is close to restrooms, so kids come back with an average of two to three minutes left. He hasn’t seen anyone miss the time, but he heard that the app could revoke the bathroom privilege or not allow the student to apply for bathroom trips for a certain duration of time. Overall, he sees the app as positive because it teaches students to be punctual and responsible.

“A large part of the school’s job is to prepare students for work, we want you to be in class on time because if you show up late all the time to work, they’re not going to hire you,” Beck said.

Beck added that his only doubt is whether the app can be customized on a case-by-case basis. For various reasons, some students might need longer in the bathroom.

Cirene Cruz, a junior at Fresno High, said the policy is inflexible.

“Today, you know, it’s girls’ menstrual cycles, I went to the bathroom and I came back two minutes late,” she said. “Some teachers are more strict. For example, my math teacher, if we go past a certain amount of time then we just can’t go for the rest of the month.”

She added that teachers have different policies and may have a final say on approving bathroom requests, while the app serves as a tool to record the data.

Buchanan, the Fresno High sophomore, said the school gave a one-week notice to enforce the new hall passes’ rule with the app. He said his parents didn’t receive any notifications and he told them about it. According to Fresno High’s bell schedule, the first period starts at 8:30 a.m. on a regular school day. Each class lasts for 53 minutes with six-minute breaks for students to get to their next class. Students usually have six periods a day. Lunch is 35 minutes, and students are dismissed from school at 3:20 p.m.

When Fresno High demonstrated the app and announced the new rule earlier this month, said Buchanan, he and his peers raised questions about the rationale behind allowing only two seven-minute bathroom trips, but the school didn’t respond, he said. Students felt they were left without answers, Buchanan said.

“Everybody was against it,” he said. “When we ask questions, that teacher said ‘I don’t run the school, I can’t answer your questions, I’m not in charge.’”

The Fresno Bee contacted Fresno High’s principal Amy Smith asking for an interview about the app and student concerns. The district’s chief communications officer Nikki Henry replied to the Bee reporter that staff are not authorized to speak to media without authorization.

Henry denied access to Fresno High, saying that the app rollout was still new and she arranged instead for The Bee to talk to the principal of Hoover High, which has been using the app to its full extent, including rewarding points to students who engage actively in class and participate in activities.

The district’s safety and security team funded the tool this year and will again next year, said A.J. Kato, general manager of the district’s communications team. Each school determines the specifics and the rules based on their needs.

“Sites like Tioga and Gaston were finding it extremely useful in tracking student engagements with activities and clubs, as well as the hall pass element, which reduced the number of students roaming hallways or congregating in bathrooms during instructional time,” said an email reply from the district’s communications team. “Each site may use it differently, but one way it helps reduce these concerns is by limiting how many students on campus can be out of class at a time for bathroom breaks.”

©2024 The Fresno Bee. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.