Communications and Media

Keeping Tabs on Students Moves to a New Level

Have you ever worried about your child while she's at school, maybe a fear that a stranger may take her from the playground, or that she may hide in an emergency instead leaving the building? Do you wish your school's teachers would spend more time during the day in the classroom and actually teaching?

A California pre-school says it has a solution for both problems.


In the Fall of 2010, with the beginning of a new school year, the Head Start Pre-school at George Miller III Center ("Center"), brought something new to campus. The school, which is part of the West Contra Costa Unified School District in Richmond, California, began electronically tracking students' whereabouts while on school grounds.

How? By using radio frequency identification device (RFID) technology. An RFID tag or chip is paper thin, and several can fit in the palm of your hand. The tag stores information and transmits it continuously. The information is detected or read by special "readers."

At the Center, parents sign their children in with a blank tag, and the tag is placed in special pocket in vest the students are required to wear. Once checked-in, computers show the exact location of each tag or student at all times while they're on campus. At the end of the day, the tag is removed from the vest and the information on it is wiped clean, ready for use the next day.

Why? As a head start school, it gets federal dollars to promote and foster good school habits by providing educational, health, nutritional, and other services to pre-schoolers and their families. As such, in order to keep receiving the funding, the Center is required to track what students eat during the day and take attendance every hour.

The RFID system automatically updates each student's meal requirements at check-in, and tracking makes taking attendance simple.

Good Idea?

There are two sides. The Center argues the RFID tags relieve the staff of a lot of administrative duties and paperwork, allowing the teachers to spend more time in the classroom teaching. The Center also claims the technology keeps students safer.

On the other side, many parents think the technology is an invasion of privacy and too much like "big brother." The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) agree with them. They also claim the RFID tags pose security risks. A student's tag could be read from hundreds of yards away and copied to a new tag, threatening the release of personal information and student physical safety.

It's not a new debate, either. In 2005, another California school tried a similar program using RFID student ID badges. Pressure from parents, the ACLU, and others over privacy concerns ended the program very early, though.

Sorting It Out

The Center claims that the only information on a tag is the student's name. That's it. And it's erased each night. So, the privacy concerns may be more imaginary than real. Video and surveillance cameras are used in public school classrooms. Teachers, staff, and volunteers watch children with their naked eyes as they move through the halls, cafeteria, playground, etc. Is there a difference with the RFID tags?

Some parents are for the tags, too. They want their children to be safe, and are willing to try just about anything to make it happen.  

What do you think? Public school systems are feeling the pinch of state budget cuts and cries of ineffectiveness. Will relieving teachers and staff of some non-teaching duties make things better? In June 2010, second-grader Kyron Horman disappeared from his elementary school while it was full of students, staff, and visitors. Would an RFID tag have stopped it?

After one year, the Center will evaluate its RFID system and decide if it's effective and worth keeping. Don't be surprised if more schools follow suit and try something like it soon.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What might happen if a parent refuses to use an RFID system?
  • Is there anything a taxpayer can do to stop or increase federal spending on RFID programs at public schools?
  • How can I make sure any personal information about my child that's collected and stored by the school is safe from hackers and other security breaches?
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