As a former public school teacher, I vividly remember the anticipation that students, my colleagues and I felt when the end of the school year approached. It could never come fast enough.

But as we were dreaming about summer activities and vacations, school staff also had to take care of the somewhat mundane end-of-year administrative tasks — like collecting textbooks, finalizing students’ grades, and cleaning our classrooms. We suffered through it because we knew there was light at the end of the tunnel.

While the situation hasn’t changed much for teachers in the years since I left teaching, IT and asset administrator staff may feel differently today about the end of the school year.

A Different Mindset

For them, the end of the school year brings a chaotic time when all the school district’s computers, especially those the students use for learning, have to be accounted for and inspected for usability next year. Accounting for all these devices can be challenging enough in the best of circumstances, but especially if students are allowed to take mobile devices like laptops or tablets home during the school year to enhance their studying. The difficulty in getting all of those devices back increases exponentially.

The problem here is that primary and secondary school students generally don’t have the same developed sense of responsibility as adults; even though they’re told before the school year ends that they need to return their device, many don’t do it. This is frequently true even when they understand there will be repercussions, such as fines, withholding of grades, or even an inability to register for school next year.

Read: Security Basics for One-to-One Computing In Education

Who Is Responsible?

So what options does a school district have when students don’t return the district’s expensive computing devices at the end of the year?

Remember, very few law enforcement agencies will get involved. They’ll either see the issue as a civil problem and not a criminal violation, or feel (rightfully so) that their job is to protect society and not to expend strained resources on recovering overdue property.

The key to getting laptops and tablets back lies in adopting a multi-pronged approach aimed at both students and their parents. Parents are an essential part of the equation because often they’re led to believe their child has turned the school device in then discover the device in the child’s bedroom. Or perhaps the parent sincerely intends for their child’s device to be returned, but long hours at work or a lack of transportation make coordination with the nearest campus difficult.

Device Recovery 101

To recover as many devices as possible, here are a few suggestions:

  1. Begin the outreach to students and parents well before the day the devices are due to be turned in. This can be accomplished via a notice on the school district’s website or newsletter, a blast email to all parents, sending a note home with the students, or an end-user message that appears on the monitor of the students’ devices. Or all of the above! One customer recently advised that they’ve had success in including a message about the turn in date on each device’s wallpaper.
  2. Regardless of the above techniques you use, remind the students and parents of the date when the devices will be collected more than just once. Everyone is busy these days, and with all the excitement over the end of the school year, it’s easier for people to forget important dates. We recommend a notification 30 days before the devices are due, again at 15 days, and once again the day before.
  3. When a student fails to return an issued device at any point during the school year, you should attempt to report that loss of school property to your local law enforcement agency. While they might not actively investigate, they should enter the serial number of the missing device into a nationwide database used by police to identify missing and stolen property. That way, if a police officer eventually happens upon one of your unreturned devices, he or she can seize it and return it to you.
  4. Contact with parents of students who still didn’t turn their device in, despite all outreach efforts before school ends, will be most effective if attempted over more than one communication medium. Some parents respond better to phone calls, some to emails, and some to written letters on district letterhead that may convey a more serious tone. Additionally, some of the contact info you have for a parent may no longer be accurate.  Therefore, we recommend calling, sending emails, and sending letters. These three steps can be done concurrently to ensure the parent or guardian is reached as soon as possible, or they can be sequential to save staff time. In other words, parents of all delinquent students first get an email. Those that don’t respond are then called. If contact hasn’t been made or the device still isn’t turned in after emailing and calling, then a letter on district letterhead should be sent.
  5. The content of the communication should be firmly stated and should indicate the repercussions for not returning the school property (you are going to enforce consequences, aren’t you?). While a student keeping a device over the summer isn’t akin to a criminal breaking into a school and stealing a device, the bottom line is that you are still being deprived of taxpayer-funded equipment that you are accountable for and will be needed when school starts in the fall. The student may not have kept the device with any criminal intent, but they possess something that doesn’t belong to them. You may even advise them that the device has been reported to law enforcement as a way to convey the seriousness of the situation, which can easily and immediately be resolved by simply returning the device.
  6. Finally, admin staff should have the ability to remotely freeze or lock devices not turned in on time. This prevents the student from using the device any longer and will also serve to let them know that even though you don’t physically possess the device you can control it. A good device freeze or lock tool allows you to customize a message that will appear on the screen when the device is frozen, which you can use as yet one more method of notification.

Approaching the complications surrounding unreturned devices in a coordinated and systematic manner will yield the most significant results. Primary and secondary school students can’t be expected to treat this situation like the vast majority of adults, but that shouldn’t mean those devices not turned in should merely be written-off. Writing off a device doesn’t provide enough incentive for those same students to neglect turning in the devices when next year rolls around.

Here’s the formula: by using multiple communication attempts over various communication channels directed at both the parents and students — combined with the ability to remotely freeze a device to prevent further use — will ensure that fewer devices will ultimately need to be replaced.

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