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    Update on Electronic Tracking of Students

    We’ve discussed before the use of technology to track students. In March, it was reported that a northeastern Brazilian city had issued RFID-enabled school uniforms to track grade-school students. A couple of years ago, there was a report on a pilot program for the RFID-enabled  “BostONEcard,” which will be used to take attendance for Boston public school students and “to make it easier for some public school students to use city services by providing them with one card they can use to ride the MBTA, withdraw books from city libraries, play sports, attend after-school programs at community centers, and access meal programs at their schools.” Also, the San Francisco Chronicle had an editorial about the use of an RFID system to track children’s attendance in a head start program. There also were reports of colleges using wireless ID technology, as well.

    Now, the Texas Tribune and PC World report on the use of RFID-enabled nametags to track middle-school and high-school students in Texas.

    The Texas Tribune reports:

    SAN ANTONIO —  For Tira Starr, an eighth grader at Anson Jones Middle School, the plastic nametag hanging around her neck that she has decorated with a smiley face and a purple bat sticker offers a way to reflect her personal flair. For administrators, it is something else entirely: a device that lets them use radio frequency technology —  with scanners tucked behind walls and ceilings —  to track her whereabouts.

    Anson Jones is the first school in San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District to roll out the new nametags, which are part of a pilot program intended to ensure that the district receives all of the state dollars to which it is entitled.

    In Texas, school finance is a numbers game: schools receive money based on the number of students counted in their homeroom classes each morning. At Anson Jones, as at other schools, many students were in school but not in homeroom, so they were not counted and the district lost money, said Pascual Gonzalez, a spokesman for the district. […]

    But the radio frequency identification nametags have prompted concerns from civil liberties groups and electronic privacy watchdogs, which fear a Big Brother atmosphere in Texas public schools.

    Matthew Simpson, a policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the technology was easy to acquire, meaning people outside a school might be able to monitor a student if they obtained the student’s unique tracking number.

    Simpson said the technology was originally designed for shipping goods and for cattle. “It was never intended for people,” he said. […]

    Northside is not the first district to use the tracking devices. Two Houston-area districts began the program several years ago. The Spring district, for example, started using the technology in 2004 as a way to track elementary students getting on and off buses. It expanded the program to high school students three years ago and has so far recovered $400,000, said Karen Garrison, a spokeswoman for the district.

    And PC World reports that the RFID badges being used are constantly transmitting a signal, unlike passive RFID technology that only transmits data when it is pinged by a reader. And some students are challenging the use of the tracking technology:

    Unlike passive chips that transmit data only when scanned by a reader, these chips have batteries and broadcast a constant signal so they can track students’ exact locations on school property, down to where they’re sitting—whether it’s at a desk, in a counselor’s office, or on the toilet.

    The program went live on October 1 at John Jay High School and Anson Jones Middle School where students now must wear the new badges in a lanyard around their necks. Without the badge, a student can’t access the library and cafeteria, or buy tickets to extracurricular activities. The school district has threatened to suspend, fine or involuntarily transfer students who refuse to wear them.

    Some of the students are challenging the district’s order.

    Andrea Hernandez says she has religious and privacy concerns and has refused to wear the tracking badge. […]

    In August, several privacy advocacy groups put out a position paper (PDF) which argues that RFID tracking in schools violates students’ rights to free speech and association because the technology tracks not only an individual’s location, but it can monitor which people congregate together.

    The paper also maintains that mandating that students wear RFID chips conditions them to accept a Big Brother world.

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