Where's Johnny? Surveillance and Tracking in Our Nation's Schools

From security and safety to accountability and better teaching, new technology in the schools


As the wheels on the bus go round and round, Norm Foust is watching.

Mr. Foust, transportation director for the Metropolitan School District of Washington Township in Indianapolis, has equipped his 120-bus fleet with sensors and Global Positioning System units that follow nearly every move the bus drivers make.

''We have information on what time they start the bus, if they check their eight-way student lights, how long it idles, if they check their emergency exits and if they turn their bus off,'' Mr. Foust said. ''It also tells me their speed.

''I can find out when their 'stop arm' opened and when it closed -- and I can tell that they stopped for 14 seconds,'' he continued. ''When they are out on route I can find them at any given time within 30 feet.''

The system is one of several new monitoring technologies that are being installed in school districts nationwide for student safety. Schools are upgrading video cameras in and around school buildings (and sometimes in buses) to enable real-time monitoring in remote offices. Some preschools and day care centers are allowing parents to watch video streaming from Webcams. A few schools are considering using radio-frequency identification tags to be built into bracelets, badges or smart cards that could record when students go through doorways or get off buses.

Many middle schools and high schools are requiring students to carry smart cards that store discipline records, immunization reports and eligibility for lunch discounts. Students swipe cards to enter and exit buildings, with computers immediately displaying photos of the students to verify their identities.

At the School of the Future, a new high school in Philadelphia being constructed in collaboration with Microsoft and scheduled to open in 2006, students will be required to swipe smart cards at every classroom entrance. ''That will really be able to track comings and goings,'' said Bob Westall, executive director of information technology for the School District of Philadelphia.

Mr. Westall attributes the heightened surveillance -- at Philadelphia schools and elsewhere -- to the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999, and later school attacks. ''That pushed everyone to a mode of thinking that we need to do a better job of tracking who is going in and out of the building,'' he said.

Schools administrators say they are also preparing for potential terrorist acts. They say that if they have precise information about their students -- How many are in class? How many are on the buses? What are their names? -- they will be better prepared to handle emergencies.

Joseph A. Monie Sr., a school-bus driver in Washington Township in Indianapolis, said he liked the feeling of security that came with a global positioning system, though he added that he was always conscious of being tracked. ''It's a constant reminder,'' he said. ''When you think you're in a rush and you're not really, it makes you think twice about the speed limit.''

Mr. Monie's bus also has a video camera, which he raves about. ''If you are paying attention to your traffic,'' he said, ''you can't keep looking up in that mirror.'' The camera keeps an eye on the children for him.

Last year, he said, a first grader complained that a third grader ''was beating on him. So we pulled the tape and found out exactly what happened.''

Mr. Foust of the school district is now equipping his buses with cameras that feature controls that allow drivers to earmark a moment for later review. ''I can zoom in and actually print the fist in the face of the other kid,'' Mr. Foust said, speaking of a hypothetical fight. ''You can't argue with that.''

Parents at several PTA's elsewhere say they have not heard complaints about the global positioning systems or the video or smart card surveillance systems.

But monitoring does not always go over well.

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