Don’t get carded

Students at a local middle school will soon find themselves on the front lines of the privacy debate in America. A pilot project slated for rollout at Martin Luther King Jr., Junior High School this summer will require students to carry photo ID cards with computer bar codes throughout the school day. Scary, isn’t it?

Approved for a “test run” last week by the school board of the Grant Joint Union High School District, the bar code ID system is designed to produce increased attendance and improved campus security. Basically, the project will have teachers and bus drivers using hand-held computers to scan photo ID cards before students can come into classrooms and board buses. The cards will immediately notify administrators when students are absent or cutting class. Students will also use the all-purpose cards to buy cafeteria lunches, get access to computers and check out library books.

There is no doubt that the Grant school district, which serves a relatively poor population of North Sacramento students, is in need of serious assistance. Despite new leadership, the district (which serves about 13,000 students in grades seven through 12) is troubled and flailing. Teachers work in over-crowded, dingy classrooms. School buildings are falling apart. Test scores declined precipitously last year. And yes, the district has hundreds of unexcused absences each day. There seems little doubt that the bar code system—which Grant officials plan to put in place for all their schools after successful “testing” at the middle school—would eliminate some of these absences.

To us, the bar code ID system sounds like another superficial, quick fix attempt to solve a complex social problem, i.e. how to fix bad schools. Why should students constantly be forced to prove their “lawful” status? Won’t the bar code ID system further de-personalize schools and, ultimately, reduce the potential for personal connections between students and teachers?

We live in an era where information about our public and private lives is instantly digitized though an ever-expanding web of computer networks that allow data (about who we are, what we buy, what we do, where we do it) to be shared, sold and utilized—usually without our knowledge or approval. We understand that students—even middle-school students—can’t be protected forever from the consequences of living in the Information Age.

But we can at least be cautious about how the technology is used. We can ask questions about how it impacts student privacy and freedom. And we can acknowledge that the same technology that has brought so many great benefits to society can also hold hidden and deeper threats.