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Firm Pulls the Plug on Student Tracking Test

An experiment with a device worn by pupils to record their attendance creates an uproar.

February 17, 2005|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SUTTER, Calif. — This little town's experiment with electronic ID badges at its elementary school has ended just weeks after it began as the home-grown, high-tech firm promoting the idea pulled the plug amid community furor over health effects and civil liberties.

Doug Ahlers, a high school teacher and one of four founders of Sutter-based InCom, announced during a Tuesday night school board meeting that the start-up was shutting down its pilot project at Brittan Elementary School because of the turmoil. Sutter is located about 40 miles north of Sacramento.

Students began wearing the electronic badges, ballyhooed as a revolutionary high-tech method to more easily record daily attendance, soon after Christmas break.

Each 5-inch-wide badge, draped around a student's neck on a lanyard, held an antenna that allowed devices at the door to each classroom in the 600-student kindergarten-through eighth-grade school to record when a child entered.

But parents expressed outrage in recent weeks over potential adverse health effects from the radio waves and called the new technology an invasion of their children's privacy.

They suggested that the school board and principal had tiptoed around a full public airing before allowing InCom to make their children part of an experiment.

In recent days, parents had picketed the school and the American Civil Liberties Union joined the dispute with warnings that the radio frequency identification tags -- widely used to track merchandise and livestock -- amounted to a dehumanizing, Orwellian intrusion into the schoolhouse.

"I'm very happy they've terminated this," said Dawn Cantrall, who helped lead the fight against the radio identification badges. "But in the long term, I'm not convinced it's over."

School trustees expressed regret that InCom was yanking the devices, saying the program offered promise for streamlining and boosting the accuracy of taking attendance.

In addition, the district probably now will miss out on royalties from future sales that InCom had promised in exchange for letting the technology be tested at the school.

Earnie Graham, principal of Brittan and superintendent of the one-school district, told a spillover audience of about 150 that the decision to allow InCom to test the technology was made in a public session late last year, but that virtually no members of the public attended.

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