Radio-frequency identification—the same technology used to monitor cattle—is tracking students in two Texas school districts, helping the school systems save thousands of dollars in state funds for student attendance, but raising serious privacy concerns.
Identification badges for some students in both school districts now include tracking devices that allow campus administrators to keep tabs on students’ whereabouts on campus. School leaders say the devices improve security and increase attendance rates.
“It’s a wonderful asset,” said Veronica Vijil, the principal of Bailey Middle School in the 31,000-student Spring Independent School District in Houston, one of the campuses that introduced the high-tech badges this fall.
But some parents and privacy advocates question whether the technology could have unintended consequences. They worry that hackers could figure a way to track students after they leave school. And identity theft and stalking could become serious concerns, some say.
“There’s real questions about the security risks involved with these gadgets,” said Dotty Griffith, the public education director for the ACLU of Texas. “Readers can skim information. To the best of my knowledge, these things are not foolproof. We constantly see cases where people are skimming, hacking, and stealing identities from sophisticated systems.”
The American Civil Liberties Union fought the use of this technology in 2005, when the 470-student Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, Calif., was thought to be the first in the United States to introduce the badges. The program was dismantled because of parental concerns.
Just last month, another school in California, the Head Start program at the George Miller III Center in Richmond, Calif., used federal stimulus money to buy tags for preschool students, drawing national attention and outrage.
The Spring district in Texas has been steadily expanding its system since December 2008. Currently, about 13,500 of the district’s 36,000 students have the upgraded badges, which are just slightly thicker than the average ID tag to allow for the special embedded computer chip.
Chip readers placed strategically on campuses and on school buses can pick up where students are—or at least where they left their badges. The readers cannot track students once they leave school property, said Christine Porter, Spring’s associate superintendent for financial services.
The biggest benefit so far has been recovering attendance funding at middle and high schools. Every day, the district uses the tracking system to check on the whereabouts of students counted absent by classroom teachers. Often, the students are somewhere else on campus, allowing the district to recover $194,000 in state funding since December 2008, according to district officials.
The technology easily pays for itself within about three years at secondary schools, Ms. Porter said.
Students haven’t complained much about the new badges, according to school officials. Most are used to being electronically monitored; their campuses have had surveillance cameras for years.
But some students say the badges can make someone feel a little uneasy.
“It feels like someone’s watching you at all times,” said Jacorey Jackson, a 6th grader at Bailey Middle School.
Classmate Kamryn Jefferson admitted that it feels a bit awkward to know adults can track her every movement on campus, but she understands the benefits. “It makes you mindful knowing you could get caught if you do something wrong,” she added.
In the case of a fire, administrators would be able to see if any students were trapped inside a building. If students disappear, administrators will know exactly when they left campus.
Without fanfare, the 4,400-student Santa Fe Independent School District in Texas followed Spring’s lead and introduced the special ID tags at its secondary schools this fall. The district says it has received few complaints about the mandatory badges.
“It’s a very secure system,” said Patti Hanssard, a district spokeswoman. “There’s no data to confirm that there’s any health or safety risks.”
Parent Jennifer Alvarez said she has several concerns about the technology—from whether the chips could have negative health implications to whether predators could hack into the system.
“While we can control our district and have good intent, we do not control other outside persons,” she said. “The system ultimately puts students at a safety risk if bad intent is acted upon—a factor we do not control.”
State officials were surprised to learn about the technology, and urged districts to offer an alternative to families with concerns.
“They can’t deny a kid an education for refusing to use it,” Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said. “They can take disciplinary action, but they can’t deny an education.”
School security consultant Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, said schools also should be prepared for unintended glitches as they introduce the technology.
“Too often, we see well-intended ideas implemented, and a year or two down the road, our assessments find huge disparities in what people believe is being done and what is actually happening in day-to-day practice,” he said. “School security equipment gets installed, and there is a lot of buzz about it, and two years down the road it is not in use, not being used properly, or out of service due to the lack of ongoing funds for maintenance, repair, replacement, or day-to-day operating costs.”
Copyright (c) 2010, Houston Chronicle. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Student-Tracking Devices Save Money, Raise Concerns