Law & Courts

Schools Experimenting With Tracking Technologies

March 01, 2005 7 min read
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Many school districts are turning to global-positioning-satellite and radio-frequency tracking systems to follow the movements of their buses. But while the systems have strong boosters, the potential abuses of such technologies—especially when they are used to monitor individual students—are raising serious concerns.

Schools in as many as 35 states are outfitting their bus fleets with GPS and radio-frequency identification devices in order to construct better busing routes, track where and when students enter and exit buses, and respond more quickly to accidents and breakdowns.

A 7th grader from Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, Calif., poses in her home, wearing the radio-frequency identification tag that the school had required students to use in January. Last month, however, parent objections to the tags led the manufacturer of the technology to pull the pilot identification program from the school.

“It’s a helpful tool when you’re busing 17,000 students,” said Teddi Barra, the director of transportation for the 20,000-student New Haven, Conn., public schools. She noted that the district’s new GPS system has been helpful in reassuring parents about the exact times buses arrive at each stop and when they get to school. The district has a $10 million contract with Cincinnati-based First Student, one of the largest school bus companies in the country, which began providing the technology to New Haven in the 2003-04 school year.

The use of such technologies is fraught with controversy, however, drawing objections from some parents, bus drivers’ unions, and privacy advocates. They worry that GPS and radio-frequency technologies could potentially be abused and ultimately lead to more invasive student-tracking systems. For instance, one California elementary school attempted to make student badges, tracked by radio frequency, mandatory for all its pupils.

Privacy Concerns

“You have to see this story in a larger context,” said Jay Stanley, the communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Technology and Liberty Project. “We’re living in a surveillance society, where everything we do is logged and stored by computers. It might seem banal, but it adds up to having someone follow you around and writing down everything you do.”

Global-positioning devices receive signals via satellite and then transmit data—including location, speed, miles traveled, whether the engine is on or off, and the time the vehicle arrives at each stop—back to schools over a radio frequency or by piggybacking along a cellular network. Radio-frequency identification works in a similar manner, with low-frequency badges emitting signals that are read by a reader with a limited range—from five feet to a few hundred feet.

Mr. Stanley does not consider tracking school buses at the vehicle level an invasion of privacy, but he expressed concern over the ability of GPS and radio-frequency technologies to track individual students on and off the buses and through schools.

“We’re to the point where if you assemble these data trails, you can create a high-resolution image of how someone lives their life,” he said.

The type of student-tracking system privacy advocates are concerned about was recently piloted at the 600-student Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, Calif.

A Sutter-based technology company called InCom Corp. approached the district last year about using student radio-frequency-technology badges to help keep track of attendance. The badges contained small passive antennas, which can be read by a reader that acts like a motion detector, sensing when students enter or leave classrooms. InCom paid the school district $2,500 to run a 20-day summer pilot program, outfitted the school with seven readers at no cost, and asked the school board for permission to test the system last fall.

While skeptical at first, Brittan Elementary’s principal, Earnie Graham, saw benefits from using the system, particularly as a tool to provide the state with accurate school attendance numbers. InCom also offered to pay the school royalties—money which would go toward the school’s general fund and help pay for textbooks, facilities, and technology—if the program successfully spread to other districts, according to Mr. Graham.

But when the school in January began requiring pupils to wear the badges during school hours, some parents—fearing that their children’s personal information and activities would be tracked—objected and began protesting at school board meetings.

“This is not a direct invasion of privacy,” said Mr. Graham, who said the school has no interest in tracking and sharing a student’s personal information. “It’s a closed-loop system that’s not connected to the Internet or any data system with personal information. All it does is take attendance.”

But in mid-February, overwhelmed by parent objections, InCom announced that it was pulling its pilot program out of the school, according to Mr. Graham.

Mr. Graham said he was disappointed, because the district, in his view, had lost out on an opportunity to provide critical safety information in the event of emergencies.

But many privacy advocates argue that, as the technology becomes more available, students may become vulnerable to criminals or commercial companies that could start developing universal readers. Plus, they question the message that the use of such badges sends to students about their rights as individuals.

“School is a staging ground for life,” said Mr. Stanley of the ACLU. “We have to ask what kind of citizens we’re creating if we tag them like cattle.”

Boston’s Buses

The Boston public school system also ran into heated controversy last fall when City Council member John M. Tobin proposed placing GPS systems on all of the city’s 720 school buses. The proposal was a response to complaints from parents and community members about unreliable school bus service.

When school officials checked into the complaints, they found that some buses were habitually late picking up students from after-school sports, resulting in students who were stranded and parents who spent up to four hours searching for them. In addition, some buses were found to be using residential streets as shortcuts, and some drivers allegedly traversed them at high speeds.

The Boston Bus Drivers Union—which was in the process of renewing a contract with the district—objected to the idea of installing GPS devices, arguing that city leaders and school officials were trying to spy on drivers.

But installing the devices would give the 59,000-student school district the ability to review and improve busing routes, Mr. Tobin said, which would lower fuel consumption and improve arrival and departure times. In addition, he said the GPS systems the city was considering could increase the longevity of the fleet by tracking the miles driven and providing better estimates of when buses needed to be serviced.

As it is, the status of putting GPS in the city’s school buses remains uncertain, according to Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the Boston district. He said that some money had been set aside to purchase GPS technology for buses, but that the school board still must approve that funding.

Experts say GPS, depending on the system, costs about $700 to $3,500 per bus for the hardware, and more than $10,000 for the software used to track the buses from a central location.

‘Peace of Mind’

Meanwhile, in rural Spotsylvania County, Va., school leaders see the benefits of GPS systems. The 24,000-student district piloted a GPS program in 2003-04 and has budgeted for installing the devices in 50 of its 281 buses, at a cost of $41,250, by the 2005-06 school year.

“We really want to start edging toward being more accountable,” said Kermit Shaffer, the district’s director of transportation. “It seems we are constantly held more accountable for where students are … and if they continue to hold us more accountable, then we have to have tools that allow us to be accountable.”

Such accountability is becoming a crucial issue, said Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based independent safety and security consultant for companies and schools. “What it boils down to,” he said, “is peace of mind and liability.”

Some experts agree, pointing out that GPS technologies would have been valuable during an incident in 2002 when a bus driver from the 2,100-student Oley Valley school district near Philadelphia drove his bus to Landover, Hills, Md., with students ages 7 to 15 on board. The bus driver had a loaded rifle on the bus, but nobody was injured, according to Prince George’s County, Md., police officials.

For several hours “no one had a clue where that bus was,” said Charlie Gauthier, the executive director of the Plains, Va.-based National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation.

Mr. Gauthier said that having a school bus seized or hijacked was unlikely. Still, with nearly 500,000 school buses on the road each day, he said, many do break down, and GPS technology is a good way to let schools know when there’s a problem.

A version of this article appeared in the March 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Schools Experimenting With Tracking Technologies

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