California school district institutes electronic tracking system for preschool students

The Contra Costa County School District has become the first in the state to implement an electronic tracking system for its students. Preschoolers in Richmond are now required to wear what resembles a basketball jersey that is implanted with a radio frequency transmitter. 

The radio frequency tags will send signals to strategically placed sensors throughout the school allowing teachers and administrators to know exactly where each student is with the help of a virtual map of the premises. This technology, according to proponents, is meant to alert teachers when students leave campus. 

School officials are touting the devices as harmless and labor-saving. Parents will now digitally sign in and sign out their children, saving teachers from that mundane and laborious task of keeping visual track of children and putting pencil to paper to take attendance.  “Now, when we feed the children lunch we just have to push a button and it’s done,” said teacher Simone Beauford. “We don’t have to check the papers, check the papers, check the papers…” 

Sung Kim, speaking for the county’s employment and human services department said the $50,000 system (funded by a federal grant) could potentially save 3,000 labor hours.  “Within a year we could completely pay off this system from the savings we have with the staffing,” said Kim. “We are the first child care center that is implementing with this technology, but it is already proven technology.” 

Opponents want to know how this technology has proven itself to be anything but unwanted. 

Kim’s inaccurate words raise the specter of a failed 2005 experiment with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) of students in a Northern California school district. Parents and civil liberties groups were outraged to learn that students were obligated to wear ID badges around their necks which were embedded with RFID chips. 

In a letter to the Brittan School District, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center demanded that officials immediately end the use of RFIDs in student IDs. The devices reportedly transmitted private information to a computer on campus whenever a student passed under one of many scanners.  The letter read in part: 

     “We are urging the school board to recognize the important civil liberties concerns and safety risks implicated in RFID technology. RFID badges jeopardize the safety and security of children by broadcasting identity and location information to anyone with a chip reader and subject students to demeaning tracking of their movements. We hope the school district reconsiders this serious issue.” 

Cédric Laurant, attorney for EPIC had stern words to share with school board members about that program:

     “Compelling children to be constantly tracked with RFID-enabled identity badges breaches their right to privacy and dignity as human beings. Forcing children to wear badges around their necks displaying such sensitive information as their name, picture, grade and school exposes them to potential discrimination since the name of their school may disclose their religious beliefs or social class.” 

After filing a formal complaint with the school board, parents Michael and Dawn Cantrall said in a statement: 

     “Our 7th grader came home wearing the ID badge prominently displayed around her neck – if someone wants to harm her, the mandatory school ID card has just made that task easier.” 

Brittan ended the program several weeks after this confrontation. It seems the Sutter-based company InCom was the only let-down party in that debacle when their shady deal with school superintendents fell through. 

Now with Contra Costa County electronically tagging preschoolers, you can expect an onslaught of safety and privacy arguments to come on behalf of concerned parents. One can also look forward to more ardent citizen oversight of unethical partnerships between state agencies and technology firms. 

     “Monitoring children with RFID tags is a very bad idea. It treats children like livestock or shipment pallets, thereby breaching their right to dignity and privacy they have as human beings. Any small gain in administrative efficiency and security is not worth the money spent and the privacy and dignity lost,” says Laurant. 

In 2008, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Senate Bill 29, a measure which would have banned the use of RFID microchips and similar technologies in schools. It was a year prior to this action that California became one of the first states to ban forced implantation of microchips under a person’s skin.