Freedom to Learn

The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.

Some Schools Now Track Students Like Prisoners

Few students and parents are upset by the use of tracking devices on students.

The opening of schools in San Antonio this fall brought a flurry of news reports about the new ID badges that all students at John Jay High and Anson Jones Middle School are required to wear.  The badges contain radio frequency chips, which allow school officials to monitor the kids’ movements anywhere in the school building or on school grounds.  A handful of parents and students were irate; the same technology used to track cattle and prisoners was now being used to track students.

Much of the media attention centered on John Jay sophomore Andrea Hernandez, who had the gall to refuse to wear the new badge.  She cited religious grounds—it’s “the mark of the beast”—and also made the curious claim that she has something called “a right to privacy.”[1] Hernandez is apparently creating quite a problem for the school officials, so they are doing what they can to create problems for her.  They have threatened her by saying that without the new chip she won’t have access to the school cafeteria or library, won’t be able to buy tickets to extracurricular events, and (heaven forbid) won’t be able to vote for homecoming king and queen.

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When Hernandez refused to wear the chip despite these threats, Deputy School Superintendent Ray Galindo issued a statement to the girl's parents: “If she is allowed to forego the tracking now, the repercussions will be harsher than just revoking voting rights for homecoming contests once the school makes location-monitoring mandatory. … I urge you to accept this solution so that your child’s instructional program will not be affected. As we discussed, there will be consequences for refusal to wear an ID card as we begin to move forward with full implementation.”[2]

John Jay and Anson Jones aren’t the only nor the first schools to use tracking technology on students.[3]  An elementary school in California tried such a program in 2005, but then dropped it when the American Civil Liberties Union threatened to fight it.  In 2010, the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania began watching students at home as well as in school with spyware inserted into school-issued laptops, which sent images from the computer’s webcam to the school server every 15 seconds.  The practice became controversial when one student was disciplined at school for “improper behavior in his home.”  The Spring school district in Houston and the Santa Fe district just outside of Houston began tracking students in 2010. In nine schools in Austin, students charged with truancy are forced, like prisoner’s on parole, to wear GPS tracking devices everywhere and report regularly to a “mentor.” When the “Student Locator Project” in San Antonio is in full swing it is expected to track the movements of nearly 100,000 students in 112 schools.

A few students, a few parents, and sometimes the ACLU get upset by all this, but most people do not.  Most people realize that this is not a big step beyond what we already accept to be normal practice.

We decided long ago that children must be forced by law to go to school and that in school they must be monitored closely by school authorities and must do exactly what they are told to do.  They are not allowed to wander freely. They must move only when the bell tells them to move and only in directions determined by the authorities. They must eat only when and where the authorities tell them to eat.  They must ask permission to go to the bathroom and not dally there too long. Their exercise is forced; it occurs only at certain times of the week, under the direction of an authority (”gym teacher”) who tells them exactly how they must exercise. They must read what they are told to read, not what they want to read. There is no free speech and every attempt is made to control their thoughts. Posted notices and articles for the student newspaper must be approved by the authorities. In classes, ideas are graded according to the degree to which they match official views. Students accused of an offense are permitted no due process—no trial, no legal recourse—the principal decides.  And voting?  Well, of course students are allowed to vote--for homecoming king and queen!  That is, unless they have committed some major offense such as refusing to wear a tracking device.

When district spokesman Pascual Gonzales was asked about reactions to the tracking program at John Jay and Anson Jones, he said that there “has been minimal parental and student opposition.”  He went on to explain, “The kids are used to being monitored.”  John Jay High has 200 surveillance cameras and Anson Jones Middle School has about 90.[4]

I agree.  What’s the big deal?  Schools are already prisons, students are already captives; the tracking devices just make it a little easier to do what schools are designed to do.

I think the reason the tracking systems bother some people stems from their reluctance to admit that schools are prisons.  They hate it when this ugly fact is made so obvious.  They would like to believe that schools are bastions of democracy; that students see school as a privilege, not a sentence; that when teachers “ask” students to do something it is a suggestion, not an order.  But I say, let’s do away with the hypocrisy.  Let’s put tracking devices on all the little prisoners, and, while we’re at it, let’s also make them wear black and white striped uniforms and let’s put coiled barbed wire on fences surrounding these institutions.  And, one more step, instead of calling them schools let’s call them “education camps.”

Or, alternatively, we could choose to trust kids.  We could offer them educational opportunities instead of forced instruction.  We could develop schools that they could choose to attend or not, and where they could choose their own activities.  Some of us know this is possible and that it works, because we’ve seen it.  Freedom works.  But most people don’t believe it.

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Well, what do you think?  Are schools prisons, or not?  Should they be prisons, or not?  Given schools as they exist today, do you think tracking devices make much of a difference? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your comments and questions are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions, if I feel I have something useful to say. Of course, if you have something to say that truly applies only to you and me, then send me an email.

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See new book, Free to Learn.

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PS:  For more thoughts relevant to this essay, see:

Is Real Educational Reform Possible? 

How Does School Wound?

Children Educate Themslves: Lessons from Sudbury Valley

A Brief History of Education

References

[1] Huffington Post Educationhttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/08/texas-school-district-rep_n_1949415.html

[2] http://rt.com/usa/news/texas-school-id-hernandez-033/

[3] Houston Chronicle, Oct 11, 2010. http://www.chron.com/neighborhood/spring-news/article/Tracking-devices-in-school-badges-raise-concerns-1716571.php  

[4] www.wired.com/threatlevel/2012/09/rfid-chip-student-monitoring/

Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor at Boston College, is author of the newly published book Free to Learn (Basic Books) and Psychology (a textbook now in its 6th edition).

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