In Texas, 28,000 students test e-tagging system

A few schools have begun monitoring students' arrivals and departures using technology similar to that used to track livestock.

SPRING, Texas--In front of her gated apartment complex, Courtney Payne, a 9-year-old fourth grader with dark hair pulled tightly into a ponytail, exits a yellow school bus.

Moments later, her movement is observed by Alan Bragg, the local police chief, standing in a windowless control room more than a mile away.

Chief Bragg is not using video surveillance. Rather, he watches an icon on a computer screen. The icon marks the spot on a map where Courtney got off the bus, and, on a larger level, it represents the latest in the convergence of technology and student security.


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Hoping to prevent the loss of a child through kidnapping or more innocent circumstances, a few schools have begun monitoring student arrivals and departures using technology similar to that used to track livestock and pallets of retail shipments.

Here in a growing middle- and working-class suburb just north of Houston, the effort is undergoing its most ambitious test. The Spring Independent School District is equipping 28,000 students with ID badges containing computer chips that are read when the students get on and off school buses. The information is fed automatically by wireless phone to the police and school administrators.

In a variation on the concept, a Phoenix school district in November is starting a project using fingerprint technology to track when and where students get on and off buses. Last year, a charter school in Buffalo began automating attendance counts with computerized ID badges--one of the earliest examples of what educators said could become a widespread trend.

At the Spring district, where no student has ever been kidnapped, the system is expected to be used for more pedestrian purposes, Chief Bragg said: to reassure frantic parents, for example, calling because their child, rather than coming home as expected, went to a friend's house, an extracurricular activity or a Girl Scout meeting.

When the district unanimously approved the $180,000 system, neither teachers nor parents objected, said the president of the board. Rather, parents appear to be applauding. "I'm sure we're being overprotective, but you hear about all this violence," said Elisa Temple-Harvey, 34, the parent of a fourth grader. "I'm not saying this will curtail it, or stop it, but at least I know she made it to campus."

The project also is in keeping with the high-tech leanings of the district, which built its own high-speed data network and is outfitting the schools with wireless Internet access. A handful of companies have adapted the technology for use in schools.

But there are critics, including some older students and privacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, who argue that the system is security paranoia.

The decades-old technology, called radio frequency identification, or RFID, is growing less expensive and developing vast new capabilities. It is based on a computer chip that has a unique number programmed into it and contains a tiny antenna that sends information to a reader.


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The same technology is being used by companies like Wal-Mart to track pallets of retail items. Pet owners can have chips embedded in cats and dogs to identify them if they are lost.

In October, the Food and Drug Administration approved use of an RFID chip that could be implanted under a patient's skin and would carry a number that linked to the patient's medical records.

At the Spring district, the first recipients of the computerized ID badges have been the 626 students of Bammel Elementary school. That includes Felipe Mathews, a 5-year-old kindergartner, and the other 30 students who rode bus No. 38 to school on a recent morning.

Felipe, wearing a gray, hooded sweatshirt with a Spiderman logo and blue high-top tennis shoes also with a Spiderman logo, wore his yellow ID badge on a string around his neck. When he climbed on to the bus,

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