Wednesday, November 17, 2004

28,000 Texas Students Test 'Electronic Eye'

November 17, 2004
In Texas, 28,000 Students Test an Electronic Eye
By MATT RICHTEL

PRING, Tex. - In front of her gated apartment complex, Courtney Payne, a
9-year-old fourth grader with dark hair pulled tightly into a ponytail,
exits a yellow school bus. Moments later, her movement is observed by Alan
Bragg, the local police chief, standing in a windowless control room more
than a mile away.

Chief Bragg is not using video surveillance. Rather, he watches an icon on
a computer screen. The icon marks the spot on a map where Courtney got off
the bus, and, on a larger level, it represents the latest in the
convergence of technology and student security.

Hoping to prevent the loss of a child through kidnapping or more innocent
circumstances, a few schools have begun monitoring student arrivals and
departures using technology similar to that used to track livestock and
pallets of retail shipments.

Here in a growing middle- and working-class suburb just north of Houston,
the effort is undergoing its most ambitious test. The Spring Independent
School District is equipping 28,000 students with ID badges containing
computer chips that are read when the students get on and off school
buses. The information is fed automatically by wireless phone to the
police and school administrators.

In a variation on the concept, a Phoenix school district in November is
starting a project using fingerprint technology to track when and where
students get on and off buses. Last year, a charter school in Buffalo
began automating attendance counts with computerized ID badges - one of
the earliest examples of what educators said could become a widespread
trend.

At the Spring district, where no student has ever been kidnapped, the
system is expected to be used for more pedestrian purposes, Chief Bragg
said: to reassure frantic parents, for example, calling because their
child, rather than coming home as expected, went to a friend's house, an
extracurricular activity or a Girl Scout meeting.

When the district unanimously approved the $180,000 system, neither
teachers nor parents objected, said the president of the board. Rather,
parents appear to be applauding. "I'm sure we're being overprotective, but
you hear about all this violence," said Elisa Temple-Harvey, 34, the
parent of a fourth grader. "I'm not saying this will curtail it, or stop
it, but at least I know she made it to campus."

The project also is in keeping with the high-tech leanings of the
district, which built its own high-speed data network and is outfitting
the schools with wireless Internet access. A handful of companies have
adapted the technology for use in schools.

But there are critics, including some older students and privacy groups
like the American Civil Liberties Union, who argue that the system is
security paranoia.

The decades-old technology, called radio frequency identification, or
RFID, is growing less expensive and developing vast new capabilities. It
is based on a computer chip that has a unique number programmed into it
and contains a tiny antenna that sends information to a reader.

The same technology is being used by companies like Wal-Mart to track
pallets of retail items. Pet owners can have chips embedded in cats and
dogs to identify them if they are lost.

In October, the Food and Drug Administration approved use of an RFID chip
that could be implanted under a patient's skin and would carry a number
that linked to the patient's medical records.

At the Spring district, the first recipients of the computerized ID badges
have been the 626 students of Bammel Elementary school. That includes
Felipe Mathews, a 5-year-old kindergartner, and the other 30 students who
rode bus No. 38 to school on a recent morning.

Felipe, wearing a gray, hooded sweatshirt with a Spiderman logo and blue
high-top tennis shoes also with a Spiderman logo, wore his yellow ID badge
on a string around his neck. When he climbed on to the bus, he pressed the
badge against a flat gray "reader"just inside the bus door. The reader ID
beeped.

Shortly after, he was followed onto the bus by Christopher Nunez, a
9-year-old fourth grader. Christopher said it was important that students
wore badges so they did not get lost. Asked what might cause someone to
get lost, he said, "If they're in second grade they might not know which
street is their home."

But on the morning Felipe and Christopher shared a seat on bus No. 38, the
district experienced one of the early technology hiccups. When the bus
arrived at school, the system had not worked. On the Web site that
includes the log of student movements, there was no record that any of the
students on the bus had arrived.

It was just one of many headaches; the system had also made double entries
for some students, and got arrival times and addresses wrong for others.
"It's early glitches," said Brian Weisinger, the head of transportation
for the Spring district, adding that he expected to work out the problems.

But for the Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, where administrators
gave ID cards with the RFID technology to around 460 students last year,
the computer problems lasted for many months.

The system is set up so that when students walk in the door each morning,
they pass by one of two kiosks - which together cost $40,000 - designed to
pick up their individual radio frequency numbers as a way of taking
attendance. Initially, though, the kiosks failed to register some
students, or registered ones who were not there.

Mark Walter, head of technology for the Buffalo school, said the system
was working well now. But Mr. Walter cautions that the more ambitious
technological efforts in Spring, particularly given the reliance on
cellphones to call in the data, are "going to run in to some problems."

In the long run, however, the biggest problem may be human error. Parents,
teachers and administrators said their primary worry is getting students
to remember their cards, given they often forget such basics as backpacks,
lunch money and gym shoes. And then there might be mischief: students
could trade their cards.

Still, administrators in Buffalo said they had been contacted by districts
around the country, and from numerous other countries, interested in using
something similar.

And the administrators in Buffalo and here in Spring said the technology,
when perfected, would eventually be a big help. Parents at the Spring
district seem to feel the same way. They speak of momentary horrors of
realizing their child did not arrive home when expected.

Some older students are not so enthusiastic.

"It's too Big Brother for me," said Kenneth Haines, a 15-year-old ninth
grader who is on the football and debate teams. "Something about the
school wanting to know the exact place and time makes me feel kind of like
an animal."

Middle and high school students already wear ID badges, but they have not
yet been equipped with the RFID technology. Even so, some bus drivers are
apparently taking advantage of the technology's mythical powers by telling
students that they are being tracked on the bus in order to get them to
behave better.

Kenneth's opinion is echoed by organizations like the A.C.L.U. and the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes "digital
rights."

It is "naïve to believe all this data will only be used to track children
in the extremely unlikely event of the rare kidnapping by a stranger,"
said Barry Steinhardt, director of the technology and liberty program at
the A.C.L.U.

Mr. Steinhardt said schools, once they had invested in the technology,
could feel compelled to get a greater return on investment by putting it
to other uses, like tracking where students go after school.

Advocates of the technology said they did not plan to go that far. But,
they said, they do see broader possibilities, such as implanting RFID tags
under the skin of children to avoid problems with lost or forgotten tags.
More immediately, they said, they could see using the technology to track
whether students attend individual classes.

Mr. Weisinger, the head of transportation at Spring, said that, for now,
the district could not afford not to put the technology to use. Chief
Bragg said the key to catching kidnappers was getting crucial information
within two to four hours of a crime - information such as the last place
the child was seen.

"We've been fortunate; we haven't had a kidnapping," Mr. Weisinger said.
"But if it works one time finding a student who has been kidnapped, then
the system has paid for itself."