School districts and parents can track students using ID cards that contain radio frequency identification device (RFID) chips.Staff Graphic by Matt McClane and Laura W. McNutt
No child left behind — on the school bus.
That's part of the sales pitch made by StudentConnect Inc., a Marietta, Ga.-based start-up company that lets school districts and parents track students using ID cards that contain radio frequency identification device (RFID) chips.
The Chattooga County School District recently signed a five-year contract to use StudentConnect, said Kayode "Kay" Aladesuyi, chairman and CEO of East Coast Diversified Corp., the holding company that owns StudentConnect.
Advocates hail the electronic tracking devices as a way to help assure student safety. But the ability to track individual children has raised privacy concerns among some parents and the specter of the biblical "mark of the beast" in at least one community.
Chattooga County says it is going to use the tracking system only on school buses, and parents can decide whether their children will participate.
Using the RFID badges, school officials and parents will know when and where students get on and off the bus -- and whether students actually set foot in school. The badges will notify the bus driver if a student gets on the wrong bus or fails to get off because he or she has fallen asleep. Parents using the system can see when the school bus is about to arrive so they can pick up their kids.
The service is offered free of charge to the school system, Aladesuyi said, because StudentConnect plans to make money through advertising that will show up on parents' smartphones along with text messages or email notifications of their children's whereabouts.
"It's zero cost," said Aladesuyi, 54, a native of Nigeria. "We're very excited about bringing this technology to Chattooga County."
He said StudentConnect is in negotiations with school districts elsewhere in Georgia and around the country, including in Kentucky, North Carolina and California.
Other companies, including AT&T, have jumped into the market and offer schools ID cards with embedded RFID chips.
But the technology, which is controversial with privacy advocates, hasn't panned out everywhere.
Last year, Gordon County Schools became the first school system in Georgia to use StudentConnect. The school district since has had the RFID system removed, though the new transportation director there declined to say why.
'Mark of the Beast'
One of the highest-profile experiments with RFID tracking took place in Texas' fourth-largest school district, the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, which has 117 schools and roughly 104,000 students.
Northside officials hoped what it dubbed the Student Locator Project would help it keep tabs on students inside the district's large schools, some of which are 400,000 square feet and hold more than 3,000 students, district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez said.
Northside ISD also hoped to boost its revenue, which is based on average daily attendance, by using the RFID technology to count students who weren't in their seats, but were still in school.
The pilot program, held in a middle school and high school in the 2012-13 school year, drew international media attention after high school student Andrea Hernandez sued the school district in federal court. She was suspended for refusing to wear the lanyard ID badge, which she said was the "mark of the beast" warned of in the Bible's Book of Revelation.
Hernandez was represented by The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Charlottesville, Va., that specializes in the defense of religious liberties. Protesters picketed outside schools, carrying signs with such slogans as "Don't chip me, bro."
The school district prevailed in court.
But after one year, the district decided to abandon the RFID ID program that it purchased from a San Antonio, Texas-based firm, Wade/Garcia & Associates, because attendance figures didn't improve significantly, Gonzalez said.
"The attendance increases after one year were only 0.5 percent at the high school and 0.07 percent at the middle school," Gonzalez wrote in an email. "Neither one of the increases can be solely attributed to the use of the technology."
"One family protested out of 4,200 students," he wrote. "While the court issue was part of the conversation about the future of RFID, it certainly was not the deciding factor."
'Would help during storms'
Chattooga County hasn't nailed down the details of how it will use the StudentConnect program, said John Worsham, the district's director of operations.
He said it would just be used on school buses -- not inside schools -- and he doesn't expect it to be mandatory for students to use the ID card.
The StudentConnect system would have helped the district keep track of students during the big snowstorm in late January that brought Atlanta to a standstill, Worsham said. Faced with treacherous roads, Chattooga's school buses didn't finish their routes; they pulled into the closest school and had students shelter there until parents could retrieve them.
School officials had to call around to the different schools and write down lists of which student was where.
"If we had a product like this, it would be easy to see what student is at what school," Worsham said.
StudentConnect can afford to provide the service at no charge, Aladesuyi said, because of its potential to deliver a market of grateful parents to advertisers who can send their message to a focused area.
"The first thing [parents] see is Junior has been dropped off safely at home," he said. "This safety message brought to you by Coca-Cola."
The system doesn't compromise students' privacy, Aladesuyi said, because they're identified by a 13-digit number that's meaningless until it's matched with student information in a school database.
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.