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Electronic ID holds promise of safer schools

December 04, 2004

By William L. Bainbridge

While data indicate that schools continue to be one of the most secure environments for our children, the lessons of Columbine High School and other tragedies underscore the importance of safety measures.

Some people argue for human solutions, such as programs to reduce bullying, expand access to counseling, include peer mediation, provide procedures for students to report rumored threats, improve teacher parent communication, enlarge alternative options for chronically disruptive students and provide conflict-resolution programs.

But technology also can go a long way in making the educational environment more secure. For example, metal detectors have been installed in many schools to keep weapons out, and video cameras inside and outside school buildings and in buses are even more common.

Perhaps the most encouraging technological innovation is the Radio Frequency Identification Device, or RFID. In the commercial sector, tiny electronic ID chips are being placed in packaging to be able to track and take inventory of products. This technology is being expanded to many fields, including manufacturing and logistics.

And while the technology is considered by some a boon to safety and others an invasion of privacy, it is finding its way into schools. The suburban Houston Spring Branch Board of Education, for example, has appropriated $180,000 to use the technology to track the arrivals and departures of the districtís 28,000 students. In September, a primary school near Tokyo began using an electronic ID system to monitor the movements of its students in real time.

Companies including IBM, Fujitsu and Texas Instruments have recently entered the arena, claiming their electronic ID products will help guard against unauthorized entry to school grounds and will generally enhance measures to ensure the safety of the children. These systems automatically record the exact time a student enters or exits a school, making it possible for administrators, teachers, security staff and parents or guardians to confirm the safety of each student.

The ID chips can be attached to book bags or other personal items. Because scanners can read the tags from a distance of about 30 feet, no specialized entryways are required, and students can come and go freely without having to stop at a checkpoint. Their presence is recorded simply when they pass near the scanners.

Fujitsu executives said they "gave careful consideration to privacy and safety concerns. The RFID tags themselves use number codes and carry no individually identifying information. As a result, no personal information about a student can be obtained from the tag should it be lost or stolen. In addition, because the tags use very low-power radio waves even weaker than television broadcast signals, there is no health impact."

Tsukasa Tanaka, principal of the Tokyo school that employs the technology, said: "We take school security very seriously and already employ security cameras and have guards posted on school grounds 24 hours a day. By supplementing these measures with this state-of-the-art active RFID tag-based system, we will be able to provide an even more secure environment for offering individually oriented instruction."

Phil Rist, vice president of Columbus-based BIGresearch, which specializes in tracking consumer information and surveys, told me: "Most people are unaware of RFID technology; a recent national survey we conducted showed only 28 percent of the people had even heard of RFID technology. Most applications have to do with retailers tracking products." Information from the BIGresearch study is available at www.bigresearch.com/rfid.htm.

Rist said the important piece of information to keep in mind is that 53 percent of the people thought RFID as applied to retail was either "not a good idea" or were "unsure." School boards and administrators need "to do what they do best when it comes to RFID and that is provide education," he said. Parents, students and taxpayers need to be informed of the technology before it is implemented to reduce the risk of potential backlash.

Moving this technology into schools will cause some concerns about privacy. Nevertheless, it has great potential to increase safety.

is Distinguished Research Professor at the University of Dayton and is President & Chief Executive Officer of SchoolMatch®, a Columbus based educational auditing, research, data firm.

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