Technology requires schools to balance security and privacy

Technology requires schools to balance security and privacy

(Md.) As the nation ponders the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy, school administrators continue to search for the right balance between tight campus security measures and student rights to privacy.

In the latest example of that effort, students at 20 Maryland schools are piloting a new identification card system that allows them electronic access to classrooms as well as a host of other services.

Officials at Baltimore County Public Schools say they have been careful to restrict the information stored on the key-cards to just a student’s name. Still, some parents have expressed concerns about the system that would seem to track a child’s every move.

“We know that people expect us to be responsible for children once they leave to come to school, and the I.D. cards would be a way to help toward that,” said Mychael Dickerson, chief of communications at Baltimore County.

“We’re not trying to shy away from being responsible for children, but we need to have some way to know where they are and when they are there in the school building, and we don’t see an I.D. card as an infringement of any sort,” he said.

Campus security is just one way schools across the country are using similar technologies. Several have piloted biometric scanners that read finger prints or eye markers to help teachers take attendance, speed up lunch lines and alert parents when a child steps off the bus.

In some states, including Ohio, Illinois, California and Texas, parents are able to access some of their children’s information on mobile devices.

But many states, concerned about keeping such data out of the hands of advertisers or those who could abuse it, have banned or restricted the use of biometric identification including Florida, Colorado, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Schools in Rhode Island, Oregon, Missouri and New Hampshire cannot require students to carry I.D. cards equipped with tracking technology.

In Texas last year, schools dropped an I.D. tracking pilot program following a lawsuit where a student refused to wear the I.D. card, saying that it was comparable to the “Mark of the Beast,” a Biblical reference to the identification of those who choose to follow the anti-Christ prior to Jesus’ return to gather his followers.

Other districts in the state still use the technology.

According to Dickerson, if the pilot is successful, the goal in Baltimore is to use the I.D. cards to check out library books and media materials, keep track of student attendance and purchase school lunches.

“The whole reason for this One-card is that we require students to do all of these things using different methods, and it makes sense if we can do it through the use of a single card,” Dickerson said. “We look at this as a safety tool as well.”

Full implementation of the I.D. card system could ultimately help schools identify absent students earlier in the day and notify parents sooner.

Delayed notification became an issue last month when a 12-year-old girl from one of the district’s middle schools went missing on her way to school. She was found in North Carolina a few days later with a man police charged with kidnapping and first-degree rape. The girl’s parents were upset that they hadn’t been told their child was missing from school; her mother only found out later that evening when, upon returning home from work, called the school about her daughter. “One of the first things the media and the parents asked was, ‘Why didn’t the school system know where my child was?’” said Dickerson.

“We realize that (notifying of absences early) is now an expectation for schools, and we accept that,” he said. “These measures we’re taking are all about keeping students safe.”