Oct 12 2006

Electronic Tracking Tools Improve Student Safety

It’s 10:15 a.m. on any given day. Do you know where your students are? Now you do.

Using technology to track student academic performance is not a new concept. Schools nationwide continually implement and refine systems to monitor student grades and test scores electronically. The new twist, however, is using information technology to track the students themselves. In one Indiana school district, where close to 80 percent of the student population is eligible for free or reduced cost lunches, the high school students use electronic ID cards to pay for lunches and check out library books. In use for the past two years, administrators say the technology serves as an equalizer among students.

“In an urban school district like ours, it’s very important to level the playing field between paying and non-paying students,” says Dorothy Crenshaw, director of telecommunications and instructional media for Indianapolis Public Schools. “No matter what technology you use, the goal is to create a climate where all the students feel that they have equal opportunities to succeed; opportunities that start as soon as they walk in the door in the morning.”

Despite cuts in spending, schools continue to invest in biometrics and other electronic tracking tools to speed lunch lines, track attendance, distribute textbooks and automate other administrative tasks. To improve student safety while commuting to and from school, some schools combine GPS locators and radio-frequency ID tags to track school buses and their passengers. Schools even make use of more inexpensive technologies, such as instant messaging, to maintain constant communication between office administrators and classroom teachers.

Safety First

A rash of school violence has prompted many schools to install video cameras in hallways, cafeterias and parking lots to monitor student behavior. Now, some schools are linking digital video cameras to school networks to allow them to monitor behavior remotely and easily store and search video archives.

Pomona Unified School District in southern California is among the first to make digital video surveillance feeds accessible to local police via remote access to the school’s surveillance system. Pomona Unified, which uses Cisco’s K-12 Safe & Secure IP video surveillance package, installed the system throughout its middle and high schools following the theft of several computers from one school’s computer lab. Law enforcement officials-as well as school administrators-have remote, 24-hour access to the digital video feeds via a VPN (virtual private network) link.

At Nicolet High School in Glendale, Wis., video surveillance is “one tool among many” used to increase safety and decrease vandalism. The school implemented video surveillance tools in 1996, posting 16 cameras throughout the campus to monitor areas such as hallways, the parking lot and the cafeteria. This year, the school plans to switch from analog to digital video.

But not everyone agrees that the use of these types of technologies is in the students’ best interests. Privacy advocates are raising concerns about the security of student information and the long-term impact these technologies may have on students’ rights. Although Brian Reiels, director of facility services at Nicolet, views this method of tracking students as an efficient approach to managing the school, some parents are squeamish about the system. “It’s simply a reflection of our society,” Reiels says. “People have to realize that in public places (parks, malls, even freeways) this is the technology that is in use today.”

According to Reiels, the surveillance tools made it possible to apprehend a purse-snatcher last year. Within 10 minutes of the theft, school security had resolved the situation and the purse was returned to its owner.

Nicolet provides the local police department with wireless access to the network in emergency cases Reiels says. Many schools that have used video surveillance for years are now augmenting their systems with digital video technology and closed circuit TV. “Some parents have expressed concern, but most people accept it,” Reiels adds.

Tracking Attendance

Some schools-like the Springside School for Girls in Chestnut Hill, Penn.-are expanding their use of electronic ID cards to include teachers and staff. Beginning this fall, faculty and administrators, as well as students, will be required to use electronic ID cards to check out books from the school library; the ID cards will also be used to purchase food from the cafeteria and supplies such as uniforms from the school store. By the fall of 2004, Springside hopes to use the cards to track students’ and administrators’ entry to the school each morning.

“Given the times we live in, there’s a security aspect” to using the ID system to track those entering the school, but the real benefit comes from automating routine tasks, explains Pete DiDonato, Springside’s director of technology. “In the past 13 years, our student population has grown by 50 percent,” he says. “It’s really a question of adopting an administrative system that can accommodate that many students.”

Administrators add that the information being collected and shared via electronic ID cards, for example, is the same information that is currently being collected in a non-digital fashion. Whether students show up for school or check a book out from the library is already tracked electronically, DiDonato adds, although teachers and staff currently have to enter this information manually.

Like Indianapolis Public Schools, students at Bensalem High School in Bensalem, Pa. carry electronic ID cards but not for the purpose of paying for school lunches; the magnetic strip ID cards are required for daily admittance to the high school. Cutting class, according to Frank Fernandez, IT manager for the district, was getting to be a big problem three years ago when the electronic ID system was first implemented.

“This is the first year that we’ve really gotten the system to work effectively,” says Assistant Principal Bill Incollingo. Each morning, the high school’s 2,100 students must pass through one of six scanning stations and have their ID cards swiped before going to class. Each scanning station is manned by a student or faculty aide and mounted on a PC. As students swipe their cards, their photos appear on the PC monitor; the time and date of entry is recorded and automatically entered into the district’s central student information system, which tracks attendance, grades, class schedules and discipline records.

“If a student who has been suspended tries to enter the school, the system automatically knows it,” says Incollingo of the system’s real-time integration with the student information system. Also, because the card can only be used to log in once a day, it can’t be passed along to friends or siblings who may resemble the student pictured.

Although Incollingo doesn’t have hard data on just how effective the electronic ID system has been in discouraging kids from cutting school, he sees the program as a success. Now, teachers can find out instantaneously whether a student who is absent from class entered the school that day. It also gives students who may have been mistakenly marked absent by a teacher a way to prove they were in fact in school.

Bensalem’s electronic attendance program has been so successful that the school is considering installing scanners in each of its classrooms to make it that much easier for teachers to take attendance, often a time-consuming task that shaves several minutes off valuable class time. However, the cost-about $200 per classroom-makes the technology too expensive to implement at the classroom level anytime soon. A more realistic and immediate extension of the electronic ID program, Fernandez says, will be combining the system with PDAs to give administrators and health officials quick access to student data from remote locations, such as football games.

With a swipe of the card, administrators can access the student’s parent contact information, learn of existing health conditions and access other details. “Now that it’s a proven concept, we’re expanding the [electronic ID] system to use at the middle school,” Fernandez explains.

Creating Cashless Campuses

The use of tracking technology is not meant only to simplify tasks for administrators. Kids too, benefit from “cashless” campuses and electronic monitoring of their coming and going. Administrators say monitoring better equips them to deal with emergency situations and ultimately makes schools safer.

At Indianapolis Public Schools, the electronic ID cards-referred to as “universal ID” cards-are plastic cards with magnetic strips containing only the student’s school-assigned ID number. When students swipe their cards at the lunch counter, their student ID number is recorded with their food purchase. Kids who prepay for their meals are automatically debited; those who receive federal lunch program benefits are counted and recorded.

The system works similarly at Parker Memorial Elementary School in Tolland, Conn. When buying school lunches, Parker students press their fingertips onto a scanner rather than swiping ID cards. Jackie Schipke, Tolland School District’s lunch program coordinator, points out that elementary school kids can sometimes forget their money or ID card but they can’t forget their fingers.

Using fingerprint recognition, Schipke notes, has made the task much simpler for both students and cashiers. “Even when you remind the kids to have their money out when they get in line they still forget or they drop their coins on the floor or they’re a little short,” she adds.

The system, implemented at the elementary school in May 2002 and introduced this year at Tolland’s middle school and high school, was initially intended to speed up lunch lines at schools with growing student populations. But the real benefit, Schipke says, is in more accurately tracking students’ expenses. Well over half of the school’s 285 students pre-pay for lunches on a semester basis. Another significant percentage of students qualifies for free or reduced lunches.

“It was becoming tremendously difficult to keep track of students who were pre-paying for their lunches,” Schipke says of the school’s previous paper-based system. “Parents on the pre-paid plan were essentially paying for meals whether or not their child was at school that day.” By contrast, the new biometric-powered point-of-sale system allows us to keep a much more detailed record of students’ lunchtime purchases and pass more value along to their parents.

Kids are still taking their time learning to have their fingers scanned, and on occasion kids’ fingers need to be wiped clean before the system can read their fingerprints. The system works by creating an algorithm based on the students’ unique fingerprints. That algorithm is then matched electronically to the students’ ID numbers. Because the system is at use now throughout the Tolland school district, kids only need to be fingerprinted once-their records travel with them from elementary to high school.

While the system is only used for tracking kids on pre-paid meal plans, almost every student at Parker has been fingerprinted. Only six have opted out of the system, at their parents’ request. Schipke acknowledges that some parents may fear how their child’s information could be used in the future. “The potential is there to link [the biometrics system] with student information systems,” she says. Right now, only the most basic student data-such as names and addresses-is imported from the school’s central student information database.

Constant Communication

Instant messaging is playing a roll in tracking students as well, allowing teachers to communicate directly with administrators from their classrooms without the need for a telephone or disruptive P.A. systems. At the Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, Fla., instant messaging technology is used as the primary method of communication among the school’s staff of 200 teachers and administrators. Instant messaging is used to alert teachers in real-time to upcoming meetings, school events and even security issues, without interrupting students’ studies. Similarly, instant messaging is heavily relied upon at Kirksville Senior High School in Kirksville, Mo.

“There are no phones in the classrooms and our P.A. system is antiquated,” explains Randy Reynolds, Kirksville’s technology education teacher and school Webmaster. Like the Benjamin School, Kirksville uses e/pop, a security-conscious instant messaging package from WiredRed Software. Kirksville’s staff of 60 teachers and administrators routinely uses e/pop to summon students to the office. In one instance when a student was having a seizure in the classroom, the teacher summoned the school nurse with e/pop. Teachers even use the technology to IM (instant message) staff at the district office. “If you took [instant messaging] away from teachers now there would be an uproar,” Reynolds says.

Guarding Student Privacy

As schools increasingly make use of technologies for tracking students’ physical whereabouts, the question of whether students’ rights are being adequately protected becomes an obvious one. Given the potential for integrating systems and sharing information among school officials and other public institutions, capturing student data becomes an extremely sensitive issue, says Marc Rosenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C. “In terms of students’ private lives, capturing even basic information like what they had for lunch or what time they got to school can have the effect of making students feel like they’re under surveillance,” Rosenberg adds.

Cynthia Chmielewski, staff counsel for the National Education Association, notes that the use of technology does raise valid concerns about how schools intend to use the student information collected. “Schools should have clear, accessible usage policies in place,” Chmielewski says. Moreover, because technology is moving at such a fast pace, “it would behoove schools to look at the issues raised and get legal counsel, while also soliciting input from parents, school employees and the community.”


Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT