Technology Helps Keep Track of Students, Assets at Fort Worth Schools

Southwest High School Assistant Principal Willie Cormier can access a database on students by using a personal digital assistant and ScheduleFinder software.

There'll be no more sneaking over to your girlfriend's classroom during study hall. Big Brother knows all.

Campus administrators have long used video cameras and walkie-talkies to keep tabs on students. Now they have a new tool that could end hall wandering forever.

A PalmPilot that stores a virtual file cabinet's worth of student records is being used in 43 Fort Worth secondary schools this year. ScheduleFinder software is being tried in several large Texas districts, including Houston, Austin and El Paso.

Now a school official or campus monitor can quickly pull up a student's class schedule. Plans call for the addition of parents' names and phone numbers, locker numbers, the location of parking spaces, health information and students' photos.

Some of the devices can also take photographs, allowing quick documentation of graffiti or other vandalism.

At first, students were enthralled by the computers dangling from the necks of campus monitors patrolling hallways. Typically, students hold the technological advantage: BlackBerries, MP3 players and cellphones with text messaging.

"I think word's gotten out" and the fascination has become, "Oh, man, you know where I'm at," said Glenda Tisby, a monitor at Southwest High School.

Because the PalmPilots can hold so much personal information, they have several levels of password protection. The data are encrypted so that "even if somebody were to steal the Palm and hack it," the information would not be accessible, said Jeff Petrie, president of TruSmart Technologies, which is based in Rochester, N.Y., and developed the software.

It's a "godsend" for administrators trying to keep students in class, said Mike Arnett, assistant principal at Southwest.

Fort Worth is the only area district using the software, but some districts have purchased PalmPilots for other uses or have expanded their surveillance in other ways.

Carroll is using a greater number of remote cameras this year, said Harry Ingalls, the district's assistant superintendent for operations.

At Keller's Central High School, officials use PalmPilots to scan the bar codes when students check out textbooks. If a book is found, scanning the bar code reveals the owner's name.

The Fort Worth district hopes to expand the ScheduleFinder database to help in an emergency, when quick access to a student's medical record could make a huge difference.

Alice Jackson, who oversees the Fort Worth district's health services, said that she was unaware of the new technology but that downloading health records could violate confidentiality.

Bill Richardson, Fort Worth schools' chief information officer, said that the district is aware of confidentiality issues and that only information that could be useful in an emergency -- if a student has diabetes or seizures, for example -- will be added.

Only Fort Worth district employees are supposed to have access to the information on the PalmPilots, Richardson said. But Fort Worth police officers are also using them at several schools.

Richardson said that would be a breach of security. Police officers assigned to a school are not supposed to have access to any student information, he said.

Principals were "well-notified" that only school employees were to use the PalmPilots, Richardson said, adding that the district will deny anyone else the information.

The software is available to at least 200 Fort Worth school employees. It cost the district $85,000, according to Richardson. The district ordered 230 PalmPilots for $200 to $250 each for the 43 schools.