By MICHELLE R. SMITH
PROVIDENCE, R.I. – A tech company with ties to a school district plans to test a tracking system by putting computer chips on grade-schoolers’ backpacks, an experiment the ACLU ripped Monday as invasive and unnecessary.
The pilot program set to start next week in the Middletown school district would have about 80 children put tags containing radio frequency identification chips, or RFID chips, on their schoolbags. It would also equip two buses with global positioning systems, or GPS devices.
The school and parents will be able to track students on the bus, and the district hopes the program will improve busing efficiency, Superintendent Rosemarie Kraeger said. The devices are intended to record only when students enter and exit the bus, and the GPS would show where the bus was on it’s route.
Parents could opt out of the program, Kraeger said.
The pilot program, made by MAP Information Technology Corp., is to run for several months at the Aquidneck School, she said. The district, which serves about 2,500 students, is the company’s only client, said Deborah Rapp, the company’s director of marketing and communications.
Steven Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, sent a letter to Kraeger and members of the school committee calling the plan “a solution in search of a problem” and saying the school district should already have procedures in place to track where its students are.
On Monday, he said the program raises enormous privacy and safety concerns.
“There’s absolutely no need to be tagging children,” he said. “We are not questioning the school district’s ability to use GPS to monitor school buses. But it’s a quantitative leap to monitor children themselves.”
Rapp described the system as limited in scope.
“The program is solely designed to provide accountability when the children are in transit, from the moment they enter the bus to the moment they exit,” she said. “It is limited to when they are on the bus. We in no way take it beyond that.”
Brown also raised concerns that unauthorized people, perhaps using RFID readers that are easily bought online, could exploit information contained on the tags.
Ed Collins, the district’s facilities manager, said that would not be possible. Collins and Rapp said the RFID tag would only contain an ID number, not a name, address or other personal information. Only the school administration would be able to match the ID number with the child, Rapp said.
Collins is the brother of Chris Collins, who founded MAP Information Technology last year. The district did not need clearance from the state ethics commission to set up the testing, however, because the program is free during the pilot, Kraeger said.
Officials with the district, which neighbors a naval station and the famed yachting community of Newport, said they didn’t have an estimate on what it would cost to put the tracking system in place district-wide.
Kraeger said she was unaware of the controversy ignited three years ago when a Northern California school system planned to put in place an RFID system to track students at school. The proposal died after protests by parents and privacy and civil liberties advocates, including the ACLU.
The Middletown school board approved the pilot program in November. In a recent letter to parents, the company and the district explained the program and invited parents to get in touch with the school system if they had any questions, Rapp said. No one called.
The district was interested in trying out the program in the hopes that it would improve communication with parents, who will be able to check a Web site to see whether the buses are on time and their children are on them, Kraeger said.
Tracking students’ movements will be no different from an existing system that allows parents to see what their child had for lunch or check their attendance record, Kraeger said.
“If a bus were delayed, they could look for their own student ID and see where the bus was,” she said.