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Tagging Students

Do today’s RFID tags cross the privacy line?

Eighth grader Tira Starr doesn’t leave her family’s San Antonio home in the morning without checking her backpack for her school ID. Decorated with Hello Kitty stickers and her friends’ names—and embedded with technology that can track her whereabouts on campus—it’s an item with potentially far greater value to Texas’s Northside Independent School District than its $15 price tag.

NISD, which serves nearly 100,000 students in the San Antonio area, is running a pilot program that requires students to wear ID badges embedded with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag. The two schools chosen for the district’s Student Locator Project—Anson Jones Middle School and John Jay High School—have a combined enrollment of about 4,000 and attendance figures that rank among the district’s lowest.

Like traditional school IDs, the RFID badges help faculty and staff identify trespassers and determine whether an individual is supposed to be on campus. The technology holds the promise of three key benefits: increased safety and security; improved attendance records (which should bring about a badly needed increase in state funding); and transactional capabilities for the cafeteria, the library, and even for event ticketing.

Supporters also contend that RFID provides a more accurate means of tracking attendance. Students won’t be mistakenly recorded as absent when they are actually on campus—visiting the school nurse or meeting with a guidance counselor, for example.

Opponents hold that tagging and tracking students sets a troubling precedent, intruding upon their right to privacy. They note that the technology is the same as that used by ranchers to track herds of cattle. “Students are not cattle and schools are not farms,” tweeted Karissa Sparks, a 1990 graduate of Taft High School in San Antonio. “That’s not the NISD I graduated from. Come on.”

Some current students in the Northside district, like Tira Starr, don’t have a problem with the program. Starr says that she and many of her classmates don’t think it’s unreasonable to have to keep the badges with them while on campus. “It makes us more responsible, and it makes things easier for the front office,” says Starr. “Everybody knows we have to have it, and if they don’t have it, they call their parents to bring it—fast.”

Following the Money
For a district like Northside, where the fiscal outlook is as bleak as a south Texas riverbed in July, the potential to generate revenue—even if it means weathering controversy—is understandably alluring. In 2012, the legislature cut school funding statewide by $5.4 billion. Northside’s operating budget has been slashed from $1.21 billion two years ago to $1.02 billion this year.

The RFID tags are intended to improve tracking average daily attendance (ADA), a central element of the school funding formula used by Texas and many other states.

In a typical week, Jones Middle School is “recovering” a minimum of 25 students per week thanks to the RFID tags, says Principal Wendy Reyes. That’s about $150 per day, or $30,000 over the course of the school year. The district estimates that the program could eventually bring in $1.2 million annually if it were put in place in all of Northside’s secondary schools.  

Given the district’s dire financial straits, some parents see the approach as inevitable. “I would hope teachers can help motivate students to be in their seats instead of the district having to do this,” parent Margaret Luna told the San Antonio Express-News. “But I guess this is what happens when you don’t have enough money.”

How RFID Tags Work
Northside’s badges are slightly thicker than standard-issue corporate employee IDs. The student’s photo appears on the front, along with the school’s name, an illustration of its mascot, and a bar code. The RFID tag, embedded in the badge itself, can be read by scanners at checkpoints, such as archways or classroom doors, as students pass by. There is no personal data or student information stored in the tag. The only data it contains, and transmits to the scanner, is a unique identification number associated with the bearer of the badge. Essentially, badges and scanners, working together, record that a given person (or at least the person’s badge) was at a given place at a given time.

Teachers still take roll the old-fashioned way. Absences are reported to the office. The attendance secretary then checks for those students individually, much like an air traffic controller looking for a wayward plane. If a student is in the vicinity, he or she will register as a flashing green dot on a campus map. A staff member is then dispatched to the location to confirm the student is present. When parents come to the school to pick up their children—for a doctor’s appointment, for example—students can be tracked down quickly in the event they are not in their regular classroom.

“We had kids missing dentist appointments because we couldn’t find them fast enough,” Reyes says. “We had staff running through the school trying to find students, and the parents were understandably upset.”

More Tags in More States
The use of RFID tags in school settings isn’t new, but it also isn’t yet commonplace, according to the Council of Great City Schools. In recent years, though, there’s been a steady increase. The 400-student Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, New York, first experimented with using RFID tags to take attendance in 2003 but gave up on the large-scale program several years ago because students were losing the tags. (Tags are still used to track faculty and staff and for access to campus facilities.) A handful of campuses in Houston followed suit a year later. Two years ago, a California preschool, using funds from a federal stimulus grant, began requiring RFID tags to be embedded in students’ clothing.  

Districts have adopted other technologies to monitor students as well. In Baltimore, habitual truants were given flip phones as part of a virtual-mentoring pilot program in 2012 at Carver Vocational Technical High School. Mentors used GPS tracking data from the phones to keep tabs on their charges, and they helped get them to class on time with morning wake-up calls. And in Carroll County, Maryland, students slide their hands across a palm scanner to pay for school lunches. The technology was first implemented in Pinellas County, Florida, in 2011, and more than 50 districts across the country have followed suit, prompting privacy concerns from parents in Louisiana and Mississippi.

Turning Around Truancy
Fiscal concerns aside, schools care deeply about attendance. It’s a truism that students can’t learn if they’re not in school. And numerous studies suggest that even sporadic absences can have an impact on a student’s education.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing 10 percent of instructional time—18 days over the course of a 180-day school year. By sixth grade, chronic absences are a clear ­predictor of who will drop out of school later on, according to Attendance Works, a San Francisco–based national research and advocacy organization. By the time students reach high school, their attendance is a better predictor of whether they will graduate on time than their test scores.

But, says Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, using RFID tags won’t help improve student outcomes unless it’s part of a broader effort. “If all you’re doing is collecting attendance data to monitor ADA and get overall better funding, I don’t know that it’s a real benefit,” Chang says. “You have to figure out the patterns of poor attendance, the kids who need help, and what strategies will turn things around. You need to talk to parents about why attendance matters, how you’re going to use the technology, and what tools you’re going to provide to improve their children’s educational experience.”

Using RFID is no substitute for teachers being aware of what’s happening with their individual students, Chang adds. “If it replaces human interaction, it’s detracting from the important work of making sure kids are in school so that they can learn.”

Privacy Concerns
Northside’s student locator project has already faced a court challenge—from Andrea Hernandez, a sophomore at John Jay High School. Hernandez refused to wear the badge for religious reasons. Her father, citing his family’s fundamentalist Christian beliefs, said wearing a government-issued badge—even with the RFID tag removed, as school officials reportedly offered to do—is the equivalent of the “mark of the Beast.” A federal judge sided with the district in January.

The conservative Rutherford Institute, which has been vocal in its support of Hernandez, has said it will help her appeal the decision. “By declaring Andrea Hernandez’s objections to be a secular choice and not grounded in her religious beliefs, the district court is placing itself as an arbiter of what is and is not religious,” John W. Whitehead, the institute’s president, told the San Antonio Express-News. “This is simply not ­permissible.”

Other critics oppose RFID tags on broader grounds. A position paper signed by more than two dozen organizations and privacy advocates—including the ACLU, Texans for Accountable Government, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center—warns that the practice “could usher in a society that accepts this kind of treatment as routine rather than an encroachment of privacy and civil liberties.”

Once data-collecting systems are in place, the data is often used for secondary purposes that lead to privacy invasion, says Virginia Rezmierski, a cosigner of the position paper and a former professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and the Ford School of Public Policy.

She cited as an example a university that had asked employees to provide health information and undergo testing as part of a voluntary wellness program. That data was later used for purposes far beyond the parameters of the original program, including employee health insurance rates.

“If the concern is why students aren’t showing up for class, there are ways to address that, from training teachers to take more accurate attendance to looking at student motivation,” she adds. “The goal should be to stay true to the problem you’re trying to solve.”

By allowing tracking devices, “we are numbing the population to being suspected when they haven’t done anything wrong … and to thinking nothing of having to register their location and themselves,” Rezmierski cautions. “We can’t see these constraints to social justice and our civil rights because they come in these tiny ­increments.”

Does such tracking constitute a violation of students’ right to privacy? “There’s definitely a reduced level of Fourth Amendment protection when you’re talking about minors on school premises,” says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia. But, he adds, “even when you’re dealing with minors, it’s possible to go too far. There are lines a school can’t cross.”

In 2009, the Supreme Court ruled an Arizona middle school went too far by submitting an eighth grader to a strip search to determine whether she was carrying prescription-strength ibuprofen, a violation of campus policy. In that decision, LoMonte says, “what the Supreme Court told us is that a lot of what a school can get away with depends on the severity of the danger they’re responding to.” If a school could demonstrate that it has a significant problem with students wandering off campus and causing harm to themselves or others, it might be easier “to justify the intrusion” of RFID tags. But, he adds, it’ll be “an awkward climb to get over the legal precedent.”   

—Spring 2013—

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