Parents of elementary and middle school students in a small California town are protesting a tracking program their school recently launched, which requires students to wear identification badges embedded with radio frequency, or RFID, chips.
School superintendents struck a deal with a local maker of the technology last year to test the system to track attendance and weed out trespassers.
But students and parents, who weren't told about the RFID chips until they complained, are upset over what they say are surreptitious tactics the school used to implement the program. They also question the ethics of a monetary deal the school made with the company to test and promote its product, using students as guinea pigs.
"This is not right for our kids," said Michele Tatro, whose daughter received a badge. "I'm not willing for anybody to track me and I don't think my children should be tracked, either."
The InClass RFID system was developed by two local high school teachers in Sutter, California, who helped found the company, InCom, that markets the system. Last year, the company approached the principal and superintendent of Brittan Elementary School District with the idea of testing InClass. The company offered the elementary school a donation of "a couple thousand dollars," according to the school's attorney, Paul Nicholas Boylan, as compensation for possible inconveniences caused by the test.
Boylan said the plan seemed like a good idea at the time and that the outcry was "completely unanticipated."
"But these issues are far more complicated than they first looked," he said, admitting that "this is a test of something new. No one knows whether this technology is going to work or not."
The system consists of a photo ID card affixed to a lanyard and worn around the neck. Embedded in the card is an RFID chip that contains a 15-digit number assigned to each student. As students pass beneath a doorway scanner on their way into a classroom, the scanner records the number and sends it to a server in the school's administrative office. The server translates the digits into names and sends an attendance list to the teacher's PDA, identifying all of the students who walked through the door. The teacher then visually verifies that the names on the PDA list match the students in the classroom.
The company installed the scanners and server last summer, but students only recently received the badges. InCom didn't return a call for comment, but according to a press release (PDF) on its website, the company plans to market the product nationwide next week at the American Association of School Administrators conference in Texas. Attorney Boylan said the school district stands to earn a royalty on future sales, and InCom has promised to install a schoolwide system at Brittan free of charge after the test is completed.
Brittan is the first school in California to use RFID, but not the first in the nation. Spring Independent School District near Houston, Texas, recently gave 28,000 students RFID badges to record when students get on and off school buses. The information is monitored by the police and school administrators to prevent child abductions and truancy. A handful of other schools have tested similar projects.
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