Big Brother Invades Our Classrooms

Big Brother Invades Our Classrooms (Salon, Oct 8, 2012):

Schools across the country are adopting frightening new methods to monitor their students in school and out

The digital tracking and surveillance of school-aged kids has been growing.

Much attention has been given to the phenomenon of corporate tracking of kids’ online activities, activities that violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).  The law, originally adopted in 1998, requires Web sites aimed at kids to get parental consent befoSre gathering information about those users who are under 13 years.  Many companies, including a Disney subsidiary, have violated it. Corporate marketing interests, most notably Facebook, are fighting proposed revisions to COPPA.

A second front in the tracking of young people has gotten far less attention. Schools across the country are adopting a variety of different tools to monitor students both in school and outside school. Among these tools are RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags embedded in school ID cards, GPS tracking software in computers, and even CCTV video camera systems. According to school authorities, these tools are being adopted not to simply increase security, but to prevent truancy, cut down on theft and even improve students’ eating habits.

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The RFID tag system popularly known as “Tag and Track” is being sold to schools system across the country by a variety of vendors, including AIM Truancy Solutions, ID Card Group and DataCard.

In general, these systems consist of a school photo ID card affixed to a lanyard that is worn around the student’s neck. The ID has a RFID chip embedded in it. The tag includes a digit number assigned to each student. As a student enters the school or pass beneath a doorway equipped with an RFID reader, the tag ID is read, recorded and sent to a server in the school’s administrative office. The captured data not only provides an attendance list (sent to the teacher’s PDA), but tracks the student’s movement throughout the day.

Students and parents in San Antonio, TX, are up in arms over a decision by the Northside Independent School District to require students at two local schools to wear RFID-equipped nametags as part of the Student Locator Project. The two schools, John Jay High School and Anson Jones Middle School, plan to use the nametags to pinpoint student locations both at the school and outside its premises. In addition, students are required to use the microchip ID when checking out school library books, registering for classes and paying for school lunches.

Pascual Gonzalez, a school district spokesman, said, “We want to harness the power of technology to make schools safer, know where our students are all the time in a school, and increase revenues.” One student, Andrea Hernandez, said the badge “makes me uncomfortable. It’s an invasion of my privacy.”

Local San Antonio news media make clear that something other than school security is at stake. The local school district loses $175,000 a day because of late or absent students and RFID tracking provides a means to improve attendance reporting.

San Antonio is taking its cue from the Houston, TX, school district. It began using RFID chips to monitor students on 13 campuses in 2004. Houston’s Spring Independent School District gave 28,000 students RFID badges to record when they get on and off school buses. The police and school administrators provided the badges to ostensibly prevent truancy and child abductions. In 2010, the school reported, “RFID readers situated throughout each campus are used to identify where students are located in the building, which can be used to verify the student’s attendance for ADA funding and course credit purposes.” Student tracking has reportedly brought them hundreds of thousands of extra dollars.

In Austin, TX, some 1,700 students in eight high schools, with parent permission, are being outfitted with GPS devices to help cut truancy rates. According to local news reports, the program is being run by Dallas-based AIM Truancy Solutions that boasts that its system increases student attendance by around 12 percent.

The increasing use of student monitoring is not limited to Texas. The AIM Truancy Solutions’ GPS tracking program has been adopted in Baltimore, MD, and is now being tested by the Anaheim (CA) Union High School District.

In Anaheim, about 75 seventh- and eighth-graders from Dale and South Junior High Schools are taking part in the pilot program. Students with four or more unexcused absences have “volunteered” to carry a handheld GPS device. Participation in the program will enable the students to avoid being prosecuted and a potential stay in juvenile hall.

Each school day, the delinquent students get an automated “wake-up” phone call reminding them that they need to get to school on time. In addition, five times a day they are required to enter a code that tracks their locations: as they leave for school, when they arrive at school, at lunchtime, when they leave school and at 8pm. These students are also assigned an adult “coach” who calls them at least three times a week to see how they are doing and help them find effective ways to make sure they get to school.

Like San Antonio, Anaheim schools lose about $35 per day for each absent student. Local school officials believe the program can pay for itself as more students attend classes.

The Palos Heights School District in Illinois is attaching GPS locators to students’ backpacks in order to “locate kids in seconds” both in and out of school. The electronic reader registers date, time and location of kids. Administrators justify the tracking and surveillance of students outside of the classroom as for their safety.

A very different monitoring effort is underway on Long Island, NY, in an effort to fight obesity.  Selected Bay Shore students designated overweight or obese are being equipped with a wristwatch-like devices that count heartbeats, detect motion and even track students’ sleeping habits. Similar programs are underway in schools in St. Louis, MO, and South Orange, NJ.

In 2010, the Contra Costa County School District received a $50,000 grant to put RFID tags into basketball jerseys that students are supposed to wear while at school. The bulk of the grant went toward setting up sensors around the school to read the tags and computer systems to actually monitor where each student is. The program tracks preschool children.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation warns “… an RFID chip allows for far more than that minimal record-keeping. Instead, it provides the potential for nearly constant monitoring of a child’s physical location.” The consequences of such tracking are serious: “If RFID records show a child moving around a lot, could she be tagged as hyperactive? If he doesn’t move around a lot, could he get a reputation for laziness?”

Not all student-tracking programs work out as planned. In 2005, the Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, CA, abandoned an experimental Tag and Track program. Like similar programs, this RFID tracking used mandatory ID badges to track children’s movements in and around the school. Promoted by a local vendor, InCom, the schools board pulled the plug after the EFF and ACLU raised concerns that the program breached children’s right to privacy.

In 2010, however, a far graver incident of illegal monitoring was revealed in Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion School District.  Blake Robbins, a Harriton High School sophomore, reported that a school official confronted him for engaging in “improper behavior” at his home. As the story unraveled, it was revealed that the laptops the school issued to high-school students came equipped with special software that enabled school administrators to spy on students and even their families in their homes.

School administrators argued that the software was installed to find lost or stolen computers.  More telling, they admitted that they never told students or their parents about the remote access feature.

Faced with a class-action suit from Robbins and 1,800 students, the school district settled for an estimated $600,000.

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Cameras are gaining an increasing presence in schools as part of student surveillance efforts.  Popularly known as closed-circuit television (CCTV), digital video camera systems are being placed throughout schools as well as outside the buildings and even on school buses. In the school, cameras are located in cafeterias, hallways, gymnasiums and other interior spaces, including classrooms.

The rationale for camera surveillance is the ostensible need for an increase in security whether involving a Columbine-like threat, fist fights and/or property theft. These systems are intended to monitor the theft of an iPad from a locker, a fight in the parking lot after school dismissal or an argument between a student and a staff member. Two school CCTV system providers are CameraWatch and Axis Communications.

The data on school violence is confusing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1993 there were 42 homicides by students and 13 “serious violent crimes” — rape, sexual assault, robbery and aggravated assault — per 1,000 students at primary and secondary schools. By 2010, the latest figures available, those numbers had decreased to two homicides and four violent crimes per 1,000 students.

However, the U.S. Department of Education found that during the 2005–2006 school year, 86 percent of public schools nationwide reported that one or more serious violent incidents, thefts or other crimes had occurred at their school, for a total of roughly 2.2 million crimes. That works out to about one crime reported for every 20 students. In addition, nearly 100,000 incidents of vandalism are reported in the U.S. public school system per year.

Nevertheless, the federal government has take up the issue of school-based surveillance in a big way. The Safe Schools/Healthy Students program was established in 1999 and has pumped more than $2 billion into some 365 urban, rural, suburban and tribal school districts.

One of the beneficiaries of this federal largess is the San Antonio, TX, school system.  Like its embrace of RFID tracking, the school system has welcomed CCTV student surveillance.  It received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install a CCTV system in school cafeterias and embed bar codes on food trays.

In a pilot program at five schools, the camera systems are intended to curb high rates of childhood obesity by monitoring student eating practices.

Dr. Roberto Trevino of the San Antonio-based Social and Health Research Center acknowledged, “We’re going to snap a picture of the food tray at the cashier and we will know what has been served.” San Antonio’s Pascual Gonzalez reported that John Jay High has 200 surveillance cameras and Anson Jones Middle School has about 90.

School officials in Lake County, FL, turned to this trash-monitoring program to deal with a growing financial problem. They estimate that students tossed $75,000 worth of food in the garbage.

Cafeteria surveillance systems are operating in Virginia school districts in Montgomery, Prince George’s, Prince William and Loudoun counties.

Nevertheless, it’s the ostensible threat from social violence that is driving more and more school districts to adopt CCTV surveillance systems.

In Biloxi, MS, 11 public schools have placed cameras not only in corridors and other common areas, but in all 500 classrooms as well. The principal of North Bay Elementary says she frequently peeks in on her classrooms from a computer monitor in her office. School administrators claim that surveillance has improved classroom discipline and raised test scores.

Comparable systems have been installed in the Clifton High School in New Jersey, Garnet Valley High School in Pennsylvania, Ottumwa High School in Iowa, the Novato Unified School District in Novato, California, Chippewa Valley Schools in Detroit and Wyoming’s Cody High School.  The Milwaukee (WI) Public School system has installed them in over 30 schools.

Utica Community Schools, Michigan’s second largest district, has pushed surveillance one step further.  It puts real-time surveillance footage on hallway screens so that students can see they are being monitored. According to school officials, it serves as a deterrent to questionable behavior.

In 2010, the Connetquot Central School District in Islip, LI, NY, deployed a district-wide surveillance system to centrally monitor all 11 schools. School administrators claim that the system cut vandalism by 60 percent. More troubling, the school system allows the Suffolk County Police Department to access the cameras.

In Overton County, TN, things got a bit out of hand. Parents of students at the Livingston Middle School filed a federal lawsuit claiming that school administrators in 2003 violated their children’s privacy. The suit claims that the school illegally recorded 10- to 14-year-old girls undressing in adjacent changing areas in preparation for basketball practice. The school stored the images on a computer accessible through the Internet. In 2008, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a school may not install security cameras inside locker rooms, where students have an expectation of privacy.

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American school-age children face an unprecedented assault on their privacy both as 21st-century digital kids and as students. All their online activities are being aggressively tracked by commercial marketing interests, including major brands like Disney, online social media sites like Facebook and large data aggregators. Equally troubling, their in-school lives, including out-of-school activities like riding on a school bus, are being captured through aggressive surveillance programs using RFID, CCTV and other techniques.

Since COPPA was adopted 13 years ago, the digital world has profoundly changed. The Internet has become ubiquitous and the mobile app market for smartphone has exploded.  Throughout this process, privacy protections have suffered.

Under COPPA, Web sites aimed at underage children are required to get parental consent before gathering information about users under 13 years. The FTC has brought suits against companies both big and small for violating children’s privacy. For example, a Disney subsidiary, Playdom, Inc., that runs 20 virtual world websites for multi-player games targeted to kids like 2 Moons, 9 Dragons and My Diva Doll, was fined $3 million. Broken Thumbs Apps, a company offering mobile apps targeted to young girls for the iPhone and iPod including Emily’s Girl World, Emily’s Dress Up, Emily’s Dress Up & Shop and Emily’s Runway High Fashion, settled for $50,000.

Few parents or children are fully aware of the scope of the tracking and surveillance now going on in American schools. Three simple questions need to be addressed: What is happening to all the personal data captured about the students? How long it is being retained? And are school administrators providing it to law enforcement authorities or commercial vendors?

Now that the FTC is moving to update COPPA, it would an opportune time for it and the Congress to investigate how the high-tech surveillance state is being imposed on students throughout the country. The last thing America needs is for its schools to be turned into prisons.

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