CHEVIOT, Ohio - When fourth-grader Abby Ahrens boards her school bus in this Cincinnati suburb, she thrusts out a white card as she passes a small computer screen next to the bus doors.
It beeps, and the monitor lights up briefly. Her mother gets a text message saying her daughter has made it onto the bus.
The same thing happens when Abby gets off the bus at Dater Montessori School in Cincinnati, so Mom knows that Abby has arrived safely.
The ZPass program, a partnership between Cincinnati Public Schools and First Student bus company, is billed as a tool to inform parents and improve ridership data. But it's also one way schools are trying to keep tabs of their students - often to track attendance.
Just north of Cincinnati, Princeton City Schools are piloting a smart-card system that allows students to use their ID cards for everything from buying lunch to checking in when they're tardy.
Schools in Texas tried using global positioning system (GPS) chips to track kids. It was met with controversy and landed one school in federal court.
The increasing availability of such technology stirs a debate about the line between safety and privacy.
"I'd say in the next 10 years this (technology) will be used in most schools. It will become a fact of life." said President John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia-based civil liberties organization that sued the Texas school on behalf of a student. He said schools must be sensitive about how they handle such programs and need opt-out procedures because of privacy concerns.
First Student is rolling out Cincinnati's pilot ZPass program for all 43 of the school district's elementary schools. Cincinnati Public Schools, the region's largest school district, is the first school district in Ohio to use the technology.
Students get special bus cards with microchips that use radio frequency identification device (RFID) technology to log when and where they board and get off the bus. It's the same type of technology that some ranchers use to track their cattle, manufacturers use to track high-value inventory or drivers use when they pay for gas using ExxonMobil's Speedpass. Each bus already is equipped with a GPS tracker to map its route.
Through the ZPass program, the district's transportation office now also can keep track of which students are on which buses and where they're getting on and off. The information can be used for parent notifications, to track ridership data, and to inform parents and school officials in case of emergencies such as traffic accidents, winter weather or a missing child.
"It's going very well," said John Davis, director of transportation for the nearly 33,000-student district. "Parents and schools love the access to information and notification. It gives schools a roster of who is on the bus. Schools can access that information while the bus is en route. So if there's an incident, they know who the kids are and have parent contact information."
ZPass cost First Student $125,000 for the equipment and the 8,000 bus passes. The district paid nothing. First Student had to replace 73 lost cards this past school year - the program was rolled out in the spring - but just four so far this year.
Schools' usage remains rare
The program uses technology provided by Seattle-based Zonar Systems. A handful of school districts in Illinois have installed similar systems on their buses.
"Nationally only 3% in the nation of school districts have this type of technology," Davis said. "It's one of those things that CPS prides themselves in trying to use technology in having peace of mind for the parents."
In the Princeton school district, middle- and high-school students are in a pilot program called ScholarChip in which their ID cards have been converted to smart cards with the student's name and a bar code, similar to some government and company ID cards.
Students scan the cards at kiosks in various locations throughout the school. They use them to check in when they're tardy, buy lunch or check out materials from the school library. Eventually, the program could be expanded to take attendance or purchase tickets to athletic events. Staff will use it, too.
ScholarChip is billed as way to improve school safety and operations.
"Our students don't wear uniforms. We're talking 3,000 kids grades 6 to 12 under one roof," said Steve Castator, principal of operations for the middle and high schools. "It's one way we'll know that the people who walk into the doors every day are our students and are supposed to be there versus someone off the street."
Princeton is also the first district in Ohio to use the ScholarChip program, according to district officials. ScholarChip has offices in New York and Philadelphia.
Unlike Cincinnati's system, Princeton's doesn't use GPS technology.
"We knew there were some pending lawsuits out there, and we figured it was probably illegal to track a student with a chip," Castator said. "We were more interested in giving students a card that would make it easier to manage things they were doing throughout the day."
Districts proceed cautiously
Tracking technology comes in varying forms. Carroll Independent School District in Dallas bought 100 GPS devices from Dallas-based eTrak for staff use as an emergency notification system.
Workers wear GPS devices on lanyards around their necks and can push a button to summon help in case of an emergency.
In San Antonio, a student and her parents sued the Northside Independent School District for a pilot program that used locator RFID chips in student ID badges. The district used the program to track attendance and the money that goes with it.
But it could also track students' whereabouts on campus, leading to complaints. The district eventually discontinued the program.
Experts say the line between a sensible program and one that becomes a privacy issue is fine. They said the key is to make sure the community is on board.
"It's really about how much do you want to know, how much you should know and where you cross the line," said Executive Director Ronald Stephens of the California-based National School Safety Center, which provides training and support to schools for safety planning. "There is a way where technology can be very helpful. It's a two-edged sword."
Cincinnati's program has had no complaints so far.
Jessica Carr, Abby's mother likes ZPass.
"It gives parents the security that, yes, they did get on the bus, and they got off at a certain time," she said.
Lacheal Wright, of Covedale, Ohio, whose son Jaythan Wright also goes to Dater, hopes the district expands the program to older children.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which sided with the Texas family in the GPS case, said the Cincinnati-area programs as they exist today aren't likely to raise concern.
"We don't have problems with checking students in and out," said Jay Stanley, ACLU senior policy analyst.
But districts need to be cautious.
"Technology is moving so fast and sometimes has implications we haven't digested yet," he said.