A Sutter, Calif.-based company that made national headlines after it outfitted every student in the rural neighborhood’s only grade school with radio-frequency identification (RFID) badges designed to track kids’ attendance has pulled out of the deal, citing parental concern that the devices might infringe on children’s privacy.

The badges, developed by local firm InCom Corp., were introduced on Jan. 18. But the technology drew the ire of a few concerned parents who thought the devices were overly intrusive and complained that district officials had not sought their opinion before going ahead with the project.

To deal with parents’ concerns, the school board had planned to discuss the issue at a meeting Feb. 15, but reportedly took the item off the agenda when InCom announced it would no longer support the program.

“I’m not convinced it’s over,” parent Dawn Cantrall, who filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the (Marysville) Appeal-Democrat of Marysville, Calif. “I’m happy for now that kids are not being tagged, but I’m still fighting to keep it out of our school system. It has to stop here.”

When asked about its decision, an InCom executive told an eSchool News reporter that the district received only a handful of complaints from parents about the technology. Still, the company–founded by a technology specialist at a local high school–was concerned about its standing in the community, and that concern factored into the ultimate decision.

At press time, the school already had disabled the scanners above classroom doors and was not disciplining students who didn’t wear the badges.

The badges introduced at Brittan Elementary School rely on the same radio frequency and scanner technology that companies use to track livestock and product inventory. Similar devices have recently been used to monitor youngsters in some parts of Japan, and a charter school in Buffalo, N.Y., also has employed the technology (see “Controversial radio ID tag keeps track of students“). But outside of Buffalo, few American school districts have embraced such a monitoring system, and civil libertarians hope to keep it that way.

Dawn and Mike Cantrall’s daughter, a seventh-grader at Brittan Elementary School, poses at her Sutter, Calif., home, wearing her school’s RFID tag. The Cantralls have filed a formal complaint against the school board, protesting the tag. (Associated Press photo)

The system was imposed, without parental input, by the school as a way to simplify attendance-taking, potentially reduce vandalism, and improve student safety. Principal Earnie Graham had hoped to add bar codes to the existing IDs so that students could use them to pay for cafeteria meals and check out library books.

But some parents saw a system reportedly capable of monitoring their children’s movements on campus as something straight out of Orwell.

“There is a way to make kids safer without making them feel like a piece of inventory,” said Michael Cantrall, Dawn’s husband. “Are we trying to bring them up with respect and trust, or tell them that you can’t trust anyone, you are always going to be monitored, and someone is always going to be watching you?”

Cantrall said he told his children, who are in the fifth and seventh grades, not to wear the badges. He also filed a protest letter with the school board and alerted the ACLU.

Originally, Graham, who also serves as the superintendent of the single-school district, told parents that their children could be disciplined for boycotting the badges–and that he doesn’t understand what all their angst is about.

“Sometimes when you are on the cutting edge, you get caught,” Graham said, recounting the angry phone calls and notes he has received from parents.

Each student was required to wear identification cards around their necks with their picture, name and grade level, and a wireless transmitter that beamed their ID number to a teacher’s handheld computer whenever a child passed under an antenna posted above a classroom door.

Graham also reportedly had asked to have a chip reader installed in locker-room bathrooms to reduce vandalism. While he had ordered everyone on campus to wear the badges, he said only the seventh and eighth grade classrooms were being monitored prior to InCom’s pulling out of the contract.

In addition to the privacy concerns, parents worried that the information on and inside the badges could wind up in the wrong hands and endanger their children. They also feared that RFID technology might carry health risks.

Graham dismissed each objection, arguing that the devices do not emit any cancer-causing radioactivity and that they merely confirm that each child is in his or her classroom, rather than track students around the school like a global-positioning device. The 15-digit ID number that confirms attendance is encrypted, he said, and was not linked to other personal information, such as an address or telephone number.

As the principal, Graham said, it is within his power to set rules that promote a positive school environment. “You know what it comes down to? I believe junior high students want to be stylish. This is not stylish,” he said.

InCom Corp. is a local company co-founded by the parent of a former Brittan student, and some parents were suspicious about the financial relationship between the school and the company. Last week, InCom promoted its solution to a nationwide market at the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) annual convention.

InCom reportedly paid Brittan several thousand dollars for agreeing to the experiment and had promised a royalty from each sale if the system were to take off. At press time, no further details were available regarding the company’s cancellation of the project.

Not every parent in this close-knit farming town northwest of Sacramento was against the system. Some said they welcomed the IDs as a security measure. “This is not Mayberry. This is Sutter, California. Bad things can happen here,” said Tim Crabtree, an area parent.

Links:

Brittan Elementary School
http://www.brittan.k12.ca.us

InCom Corp.
http://www.incomcorporation.com

ACLU
http://www.alcu.org