Middletown tots to be tracked on buses

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

This year, the backpacks of 80 students in the Middletown school district will contain the usual notebooks, pens and pencils, along with one major addition – radio frequency identification chips. The tracking devices, which are expected to be installed in the next two weeks, are part of a pilot program aimed to improve busing efficiency and communications, a move that has garnered criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union for its privacy concerns.

Gaming services company GTECH’s former director of engineering, Chris Collins, approached the Aquidneck Elementary School in August with his Mobile Accountability Program, a way to allow parents to track when their children are getting on and off their school buses, said his brother Ed Collins, Middletown school district’s facilities manager.

The pilot program, approved by the Middletown school board in November, has also equipped two buses with global positioning systems in order to monitor efficiency and delays. It will feature a real-time, secure access Web site that school administrators can access to track the buses and inform parents if their children are not on them.

The Aquidneck school is the first and only client of MAP Information Technology Corp., a company started by Collins to improve communication between school buses and the families they serve.

“When children are in school, there is 100 percent accountability for them. At home, parents are 100 percent accountable. On the bus, there is no accountability, and that’s a problem,” said Deborah Rapp, director of marketing and communications for MAPIT Corp.

Collins came to learn about the issues facing school busing systems through his brother Ed Collins, who has overseen the busing system for several years.

In the past the process of having parents call in to find out about their children’s bus delays has been slow, Ed Collins said. “When you have 40 parents calling in, you can’t turn out the information fast enough,” he said.

“We’re trying to be proactive in our ability to communicate and be accountable to the public,” he added.

In addition, the program will help school administrators evaluate utilization of buses to see if and where they can improve bus efficiency, Rapp said.

MAPIT will finance the pilot program for several months to test its effectiveness before selling it on the market. At the end of the testing period, Middletown school administrators will evaluate its impact on busing efficiency and communications and make decisions on whether to expand the program to the rest of the 2,500 students and 16 buses in the district, Ed Collins said.

Concerned by the potential invasion of privacy the program raises, Rhode Island’s chapter of the ACLU sent a letter to the Middletown School District deeming the program invasive and unnecessary. “We were surprised that the school would consider implementing a program like this, in light of the obvious privacy ramifications,” said Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU’s Rhode Island chapter.

“This is a technology that was created and almost exclusively used to track commercial products and animals,” Brown said. “Many of the people familiar with the technology realize there are different issues involved when you begin tracking people with it.”

Brown said the ACLU’s biggest concern is that students will become acclimated to being tracked.

“It sets a very poor and dangerous precedent,” Brown said. “The thought that any government agency feels comfortable using this signals that implementation is likely to spread to other situations and people.”

“We knew we would garner concern from parents,” Rapp said. “From the start, we knew we wanted to make it as minimally intrusive as possible.” Student information on the chips is limited to an eight to ten digit serial number, she said. Only school administrators will have access to the secure database that assigns the children’s names to their tag numbers which would only be cross referenced in the case of delay or emergency.

“It’s not a GPS,” said Rapp. “It’s more like a bar code. The chips can only be read when children enter and exit the bus.”

Rapp said the media has sensationalized the potential for the program to threaten the privacy of children and their families.

To assuage these and other concerns, the school allows parents to opt out of the program, Collins said. But thus far, none have.

Collins said parents from other schools have even requested the technology and families will have the final say as to whether or not the program is continued and expanded. “We’re trying to find out if this is a viable solution. If the parents are happy with it, we’ll look into that kind of system. If not, then we’ll rule it out,” he said.

Providence school officials spoke with representatives of MAPIT last week and are in the process of evaluating whether the technology has relevance to the district’s busing needs, according to the district’s director of operations, Andre Thibeault.

“We’re in the process of looking into that program and other ones that are very similar,” said Thibeault. “Busing efficiency is something we are looking to advance, and these are new technologies that have the potential to do that for us.”

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