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'Net Insider

The kids were right, school is a prison


By Scott Bradner

Network World, 02/21/05

Scott Bradner


The school board in Sutter, Calif., and the superintendents of the Brittan Elementary School seem to want to prove that generations of students were correct when they felt that school officials cared more about confining students to classrooms than educating them. At this point the school board is well on its way to achieving that goal.


Like petty little dictators, school officials imposed a new ID system on elementary school students. Students were issued ID tags they must wear around their necks - just like in some prisons - and school officials have threatened disciplinary proceedings against any student who fails to do so. The tags include the student's name, picture, school, class year and school ID number. The tags also include an RFID chip that responds to a scanner with a student-specific serial number. As part of an initial test, the school was equipped with RFID scanners above the doors to some classrooms and bathrooms. The system was installed without any advance notice or discussion with students or parents.


School officials said the system would provide better information about attendance, which the school needs to report to the state, would let folks know if a student failed to show up for class and would help discover intruders (because they would not have ID tags). According to news reports, the school has not had a problem with truancy, so school officials seem to be fixing a problem they do not have.


Note that unless all people in the building, which includes teachers and officials, wear ID tags, it's not clear how such tags will help pinpoint intruders. But what the ID tags do is pinpoint students while in school and while walking to and from school. Sounds like an ideal enabler for someone wanting to snatch a kid - just set up an RFID scanner beside the path in the woods, and you will be told when the target kid walks by with his ID tag in his bag.


It is real bad that school officials decided to install such a system without prior discussion with parents. But what is worse has been the reaction of these school officials and their lawyer since the word got out. Instead of instantly stopping the test when parents began to complain, which is what anyone with any hint of common sense would have done, they threatened students who do not want to wear the tags.


An example of the stupidity being demonstrated was the school's lawyer offering to let some students whose parents complained wear blank tags, while insisting that the students would be disciplined if they failed to wear the useless tags. Even after the company making the system pulled out of the trial one school official said he was disappointed that the trial would not go on.


The school could get the information that it actually needed to report to the state by having students swipe a magstripe card when they entered or left the school building with far less threat to student safety and privacy. But that would be too sensible.


By the way, don't laugh at the plight of these students - your pointy-haired boss might suddenly decide that finding out when you go to the bathroom is critical to the health of your company.


Disclaimer: Considering the endowment, the heath of Harvard does not seem to be at risk and the above puzzlement is mine, not from the university.