Playing high-tech tag withstudents

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
United States

A small but growing number of US schools is turning to electronic tagging and identification technology to monitor students. The systems, used elsewhere to track product shipments and even monitor prison inmates, are intended to keep students safe and free teachers from housekeeping chores such as taking registers. But critics say the trend raises the spectre of Big Brother-style surveillance in schools.

Spring independent school district, near Houston, Texas, began phasing in electronic ID cards for its 28,000 students last month. The cards have microchips with tiny antennae, dubbed radio-frequency identification tags, that are read by computers aboard school buses, feeding data to central computers on students' movements to and from school.

"It gives us one more opportunity to keep kids safe and secure," said spokeswoman Regina Curry. "We're just trying to be proactive."

The $180,000 (pound;95,000) system was unanimously approved by school chiefs and has encountered no parental opposition, Ms Curry said.

A school in Buffalo, New York, plans to extend similar technology, introduced last year to track attendance, to identify and crack down on latecomers, and record students' disciplinary infringements.

Meanwhile, schools near Phoenix, Arizona, recently deployed fingerprint readers to keep tabs on students getting on and off buses.

So-called biometric systems rely on unique biological identifiers. Don Estridge high tech middle school in Palm Beach, Florida, is rolling out hand-scanning technology to permit cashless school dinner payments, and automate attendance-taking and library withdrawals.

Readers, calibrated to allow for growing hands, cross-reference students'

handprints with images captured on a database. "Unlike cards, students can't lose hands," quipped assistant principal, Michael McCurdy.

The technology is a time-saver, he added. "There's a significant loss of instructional time when teachers have to take attendance - take five minutes per period, 180 days a year, and you see the magnitude of time lost."

Schools in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Minnesota have introduced similar schemes.

But hackles are being raised among civil liberties advocates. "It's treating children like criminals," said Lillie Coney, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Schools are usurping parental prerogatives to protect children, she said, adding that technology could be vulnerable to hacking.

Mr McCurdy said privacy concerns were overblown in light of the ubiquitous use of credit cards, data from which companies use to track buying patterns.

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