Schools to Monitor Obese Students, Raising Privacy Fears

Some students in Long Island schools will soon be asked to wear electronic monitors in a controversial effort to allow school officials to track kids’ physical activity around the clock.

In the spring, the athletics chair for Bay Shore schools will hand out 10 Polar Active monitors to selected overweight students. The $90 wristwatch-like devices count heartbeats, detect motion and even track students’ sleeping habits in a bid to combat obesity, writes Mary Kay Linge at the New York Post.

The information can then be accessed by a password-protected Web site that students and educators can access. The devices have already raised privacy concerns among some parents and observers in school districts in St. Louis and South Orange, NJ, where they have already been implemented.

But Ted Nagengast, the Bay Shore athletics chair, defended the measure, saying:

“It’s a great reinforcement in fighting the obesity epidemic. It tells kids, in real time, ‘Am I active? Am I not active?’ We want to give kids the opportunity to become active.”

In the South Orange-Maplewood School District similar devices have been in use for two years. The heart-rate monitors and activity sensors results even have an effect on upper-grade students’ marks in physical education.

However, critics of the program – including privacy advocates and parents – believe that the schools have been using the electronic monitors without families’ knowledge or consent.

Beth Huebner, a St. Louis mother whose 4th grade son wore a Polar Active monitor in class without her OK last fall at Ross Elementary School, said:

“I didn’t even know it was going on, and I’m active in the school.

“We have gotten no information about the Web-site security or where the data will go.”

Jay Stanley, of the American Civil Liberties Union, said:

“When you get into monitoring people’s biological vital signs, that’s a pretty intrusive measurement.

“There are key privacy interests at play.”

Stanley believes parents must have a right to say in how long the data will be stored and who will have access to it.

“A program like this should only be voluntary. Nobody should be forced to reveal biological indicators,” he said.

Virginia Rezmierski, an expert on information technology and privacy at the University of Michigan, believes that privacy is the key issue.

“Does the data pass along with the child from school to school? When will insurance companies want to get access to it? Will a school want to medicate a child that the monitor identifies as hyperactive? It’s potentially very dangerous ground.”

This comes after the U.S. Department of Agriculture published new nutrition guidelines for school meals, but many believe the implementation of such regulations will be expensive when money is tight for most school districts.

Critics are calling the guidelines, which were developed by the USDA, too expensive and impractical.

The regulations came in to supplement the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which aims to battle the damning statistic that one out of three American children is overweight or obese.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack pointed out that many students get up to half of their daily calories at school and that rigorous nutritional standards are an important step in combating childhood obesity.