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Published in Print: April 17, 2002, as Boston Will Use New Cellphones To Call Truants' Bluff

Boston Will Use New Cellphones To Call Truants' Bluff

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Truant officers who patrol Boston neighborhoods looking for teenagers playing hooky have a new tool: a wireless system that provides student records instantly.

Starting next week, Boston's 11 "attendance supervisors" will retrieve current student data by typing a student's name into a special cellular phone. Each truant officer covers between 15 and 20 schools.

Better, faster information will help get students back into classes, said Elliot Feldman, the Boston school system's director of alternative education. Nearly 5 percent of Boston's 64,000 students are truant for more than 5 days during the school year, he said, adding that other urban districts have similar truancy rates. Until now, Boston's truant officers have verified students' names and stories by lugging around a paper printout the size of several phone books. It lists every student.

But that list is out of date by the time the ink dries on the page, Mr. Feldman said.

Local probation and police officers, who often make sweeps with truant officers of "hot spots" where teenagers hang out, will also receive the cellphones, which they can use to check court and police records. "We don't want a kid with an outstanding [arrest] warrant to go back into school," Mr. Feldman said.

The data system is designed so those officers should not be able tap in to students' school records, but some privacy advocates have concerns.

"I don't think this creates a new problem; it merely facilitates the movement of data and makes [data] leakage more likely," said John Reinstein, a lawyer for the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Access to the data will be protected through multiple passwords and the cellphones' electronic signatures, said Suren Gupta, the executive vice president of operations and information services for Bluebell, Pa.-based AirClic Inc., which operates the wireless system.

Boston is the first school district to try the system, Mr. Gupta said.

Vol. 21, Issue 31, Page 3

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