Radio frequency identification — the same technology used to monitor cattle — is tracking students in the Spring and Santa Fe school districts.
Identification badges for some students in both school districts now include tracking devices that allow campus administrators to keep tabs on students' whereabouts on campus. School leaders say the devices improve security and increase attendance rates.
"It's a wonderful asset," said Veronica Vijil, principal of Bailey Middle School in Spring, one of the campuses that introduced the high-tech badges this fall.
But some parents and privacy advocates question whether the technology could have unintended consequences. The tags remind them of George Orwell's Big Brother, and they worry that hackers could figure a way to track students after they leave school.
Identity theft and stalking could become serious concerns, some said.
"There's real questions about the security risks involved with these gadgets," said Dotty Griffith, public education director for the ACLU of Texas. "Readers can skim information. To the best of my knowledge, these things are not foolproof. We constantly see cases where people are skimming, hacking and stealing identities from sophisticated systems."
The American Civil Liberties Union fought the use of this technology in 2005 - when a rural elementary school in California was thought to be the first in the U.S. to introduce the badges. The program was dismantled because of parental concern.
Just last month, another district in California used federal stimulus money to buy tags for preschool students, drawing national attention and outrage.
Yet, the program has been quietly growing in the Houston area.
Spring has been steadily expanding the system since December 2008. Currently, about 13,500 of the district's 36,000 students have the upgraded badges, which are just slightly thicker than the average ID tag to allow for the special chip.
Chip readers placed strategically on campuses and on school buses can pick up where a student is - or at least where they left their badge. The readers cannot track students once they leave school property, said Christine Porter, Spring's associate superintendent for financial services.
The biggest benefit so far has been recovering attendance funding at middle and high schools. Every day, the district uses the tracking system to check on the whereabouts of students counted absent by classroom teachers. Oftentimes, the student is somewhere else on campus, allowing the district to recover $194,000 in state funding since December 2008.
The technology easily pays for itself within about three years at secondary schools, Porter said.
Students haven't complained much about the new badges. Most are used to being electronically monitored; their campuses have had surveillance cameras for years.
"It feels like someone's watching you at all times," said Jacorey Jackson, 11, a sixth-grader at Bailey Middle School.
Advantages and risks
Classmate Kamryn Jefferson admitted that it feels a bit awkward to know adults can track her every movement on campus, but she understands the benefits. "It makes you mindful knowing you could get caught if you do something wrong," she added.
In case of a fire, administrators would be able to see if any students are trapped inside a building. If a student disappears, they'll know exactly when they left campus.
Without fanfare, the Santa Fe school district followed Spring's lead and introduced the special ID tags at their secondary schools this fall. They've received few complaints about the mandatory badges.
"It's a very secure system," said Patti Hanssard, spokeswoman for the Santa Fe ISD. "There's no data to confirm that there's any health or safety risks."
Parent Jennifer Alvarez said she has several concerns about the technology - from whether the chips could have negative health implications to whether predators could hack into the system.
"While we can control our district and have good intent, we do not control other outside persons," she said. "The system ultimately puts students at a safety risk if bad intent is acted upon - a factor we do not control."
State officials were surprised to learn about the technology, and urged districts to offer an alternative to families with concern.
"They can't deny a kid an education for refusing to use it," Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Cul- bertson said. "They can take disciplinary action, but they can't deny an education."
Security expert Kenneth Trump said schools also should be prepared for unintended glitches as they introduce the new technology.
"Too often we see well-intended ideas implemented and a year or two down the road, our assessments find huge disparities in what people believe is being done and what is actually happening in day-to-day practice," he said. "School security equipment gets installed and there is a lot of buzz about it, and two years down the road it is not in use, not being used properly, or out-of-service due to the lack of ongoing funds for maintenance, repair, replacement or day-to-day operating costs."