School first in state to track students with radio ID tags
By Dana Hull
Brittan Elementary School near Yuba City is the first in California to make some of its students wear ID badges equipped with a new technology capable
of tracking their movement on campus.
Described as the next generation of bar coding, the technology already is used to track automatic payment of tolls on Bay Area bridges as well as
livestock, missing pets and inventory in warehouses.
For the past few weeks, Brittan's seventh- and eighth-graders have been required to wear badges with the technology -- called RFID, or radio
frequency identification devices -- around their necks. School officials say the badges are scanned and used for attendance. But some parents and
privacy advocates are outraged that the badges were given to students without parents' knowledge or consent.
``I never heard of RFID until my kid came home wearing it,'' said Michele Tatro, whose daughter Lauren, 13, is in eighth grade. ``They use this to
track missing pets, not children. It's creepy, Big Brother and Orwellian.''
Tatro said kids now walk to and from school wearing the badges -- which are scanned as they walk through classroom doors and include photographs,
names and grade level -- on lanyards around their necks. She's worried that sexual predators could read the badges and be able to call out to
students by name.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center are
urging the school board to ``terminate this ill-advised test immediately.''
Earnie Graham, principal of the K-8, 600-student school and district superintendent, said parent concerns are overblown because the technology is
confined to the campus.
``We're trying to stay away from the tracking word,'' said Graham, who said only a dozen parents have formally complained. ``It's just another
tool to verify student attendance. And I believe this keeps kids safer. Two weeks ago we found someone on campus who wasn't supposed to be here and
we knew about it because he didn't have a badge.''
At Brittan Elementary, the badges are part of a pilot program for junior high students. An ACLU representative and parents opposed to the program
spoke to the school board Tuesday night, but no action was taken.
So far, the badges have been used primarily for attendance. When students pass under scanners affixed to classroom doorways, information is zapped
from the RFID tag to a central server at the school. The server then transmits attendance data to teachers on handheld computers.
Scores of companies are developing RFID applications for a wide variety of uses. But its presence in schools is relatively rare.
``The question is not `Is the technology good or bad?' -- it's `How are you using it?' '' said Mark Roberti, editor of the trade publication RFID
Journal. ``If you are using RFID to tag students, the question should be what is the school doing with the data.''
Brittan Elementary got the technology for free from the InCom Corporation, a small Sutter City start-up. The company's founders, Michael Dobson and
Doug Ahlers, have strong ties to schools in the area: Dobson is a network administrator for the district, and Ahlers is a graphics and animation
teacher at nearby Sutter Union High School.
``Parents are worried because they think that it will do things that it has no capability of doing,'' Ahlers said. ``The little badge can't be read
from across the globe. It can only be read on school grounds, when the student passes under the scanner.''
Dobson and Ahlers hope to call their product InClass, and they will demonstrate it later this month at the American Association of School
Administrators conference in San Antonio.
Mike Cantrell, another parent at the school, is outraged that the district implemented the pilot program without hearing from parents.
``Where do we draw the line about what is private and confidential information?'' said Cantrell, whose daughter is in seventh grade. ``We want to
see this program stopped here.''
What is your take on "Tagging" of our nation all in the name of "Safety of Our Children"? Would you accept a Chip?