Schools Deploy Tech to Keep Track of Students

Recent controversy over the proposed revisions to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act has led some to reexamine other ways that children are tracked and monitored, even outside the time they spend on the internet. David Rosen, in an article originally written for AlterNet and later republished on Salon.com, says that people should take a closer look at how technology is being used to invade the privacy of kids while they are in school.

Although the trend to keep a closer eye on students hasn’t drawn nearly the same amount of scrutiny as internet tracking, that doesn’t mean it isn’t pervasive. Rosen reports that schools use tools from GPS to RFID-tagged school IDs and CCTV to stay aware of where children are both during the school day and outside school hours. Administrators say that this kind of surveillance allows them not only to increase student safety, but to take steps to reduce truancy, property crime such as theft, and even to monitor students’ eating habits.

Although Americans – especially in large urban centers – are slowly getting used to the proliferation of CCTV (closed circuit television) cameras, enthusiasm for their deployment in schools started picking up around the time that events like Columbine started entering the national psyche. In 1999, the government launched The Safe Schools/Healthy Students program which disbursed around $2 billion to schools around the country for CCTV cameras and other equipment meant to improve student safety.

One of the beneficiaries of this federal largess is the San Antonio, TX, school system.  The school system has welcomed CCTV student surveillance.  It received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install a CCTV system in school cafeterias and embed bar codes on food trays.

In a pilot program at five schools, the camera systems are intended to curb high rates of childhood obesity by monitoring student eating practices.

CCTVs isn’t San Antonio’s only flirtation with tracking equipment. Last Tuesday, the Northside Independent School District school board approved the plan to imbed Radio Frequency Identification System tags into each student’s ID cards. Northside officials said that introduction of the technology will improve student safety by making it possible for each child to be located at any time of the day, and would also allow the school to track attendance more accurately. At a time when state education budget cuts are making it harder to meet operating expenses, Northside leaders believe that keeping accurate class counts would prevent them from losing additional funding unnecessarily.

State officials and national school safety experts said the technology was introduced in the past decade but has not been widely adopted. Northside’s deputy superintendent of administration, Brian Woods, who will take over as superintendent in July, defended the use of RFID chips at Tuesday’s meeting, comparing it to security cameras. He stressed that the program is only a pilot and not permanent.

The district plans to spend $525,065 to implement the pilot program and $136,005 per year to run it, but it will more than pay for itself, predicted Steve Bassett, Northside’s assistant superintendent for budget and finance. If successful, Northside would get $1.7 million next year from both higher attendance and Medicaid reimbursements for busing special education students, he said.