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Big Brother is watching…

19/02/2011

Gizmodo: Californian Middle Schools Are Tracking Kids With GPS

Well…this just takes “checking in” to a whole new level.

Long story short: school districts in Anaheim, California are rolling out a six-week test drive of a program initially tried Baltimore and San Antonio, in which students whose attendance record put them in jeopardy of a truancy conviction are given (read: made to carry) a GPS unit that tracks their location and are contacted each day with a reminder to go to school. Each student has a unique code that they are required to enter in the unit at five different times each day (their “check in”), and the program also includes a “tri-weekly catch-up” to make sure they aren’t missing out on recreation.

The program trials in Baltimore and San Antonio were “successful” in that attendance rates went up following the program, though the post doesn’t indicate whether that is a short-term or long-term result or whether previously truant kids were prone to picking up their old habits.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have the Foursquare app downloaded and still occasionally use it — mostly when I’m running late so my coworkers know I’m in the building — because it can be useful and entertaining to keep track of yours and others’ whereabouts. Using a program like Foursquare also gives you tips about the locations you visit, which is kind of nice when you’re traveling in an unfamiliar area.

However, I’m 24 years old and I choose if and when to share my location with others. I’m not a 13- or 14-year-old who decided that I was too *cough cough* sick to go to school and got away with it because my parents didn’t pay attention, or who decided to ditch to get my puff on. (Really, kids, that’s just stupid anyway. Don’t start and you never have to worry about stopping.)

I have a few issues with this program, regardless of its success rate. First, this is yet another example of schools simply picking up the slack where parents are clearly failing. Children shouldn’t need a phone call from a school or government representative to remind them that they have school, and they shouldn’t have to carry around a device to prove that they’re where they should be. Obviously there will be situations in which children outmaneuver their parents despite the latter’s best efforts, but in most cases of child truancy you are dealing with parents who are failing at their most important job. Parents, not GPS units, should be monitoring their children’s location and activities and helping them to develop and abide by a schedule.

You know what that means, parents? Don’t let your kids stay up all night playing their XBox 360s just because they’re “having fun with their friends”. Don’t let them stay over friends’ houses on weeknights unless you KNOW that they will make it to school the next morning (and let’s face it, you can’t ever know 100% of the time). Don’t take them to effing Wal*Mart at 11:30 at night so that they can’t go to sleep and can’t wake up in the morning. If you think I’m talking to you, I am — I can think of a certain few relatives in particular who are guilty of this and all I can say is you’re doing yourselves more harm than good.

The question of missing school due to illness is a tricky one, but I for one would rather err on the side of sending a child to school and having the school send them home unless they are exhibiting unquestionable signs of illness. “I’m tired” is not a legitimate excuse (see above), and “my tummy hurts” is vague enough to be either something entirely serious or merely an exercise out of the Ferris Bueller playbook. A fever, dizziness, extreme flush, throwing up or highly visible little red dots are all incontrovertible signs of illness, and should be taken seriously — that is, unless the red dots are done in Sharpie.

I digress, however. There will be times when even the most diligent parents are unable to prevent their child from slipping through the cracks, especially as they reach middle school and high school and parents are leaving for work as their children are leaving for school. At that point, it is standard practice (and completely appropriate) for the school to call a parent if they haven’t received word that their child will be out, and at that point the responsible parent can take steps to locate their child and respond accordingly. If that is the case, however, and children are actively routing their parents’ efforts to mold them into responsible individuals, then I say address the truancy and work with the child and the parent(s) to establish a pattern of more productive behavior.

Sometimes absence is merely a product of burnout, which is something that both parents and school systems need to take into consideration. When my brother and I were growing up, our mom gave us one “go to hell” day each semester — two days a school year when we could stay home without any reason or illness, real or perceived, and she would call us out for the day. If we claimed illness, then we had to abide by the “sick day rules”: she would call us in, but then we were not allowed to do anything that day. No playing with friends, no participating in extracurriculars, nothing but lying in bed or the couch and (probably) reading or doing homework to stay caught up. Our free days couldn’t be on a day when we had a test or an important project due, but simply having those days allowed us to take a refresher and helped us to take both her and our schooling more seriously. (Okay, most of the time.) If schools would embrace this practice or implement it into the calendar somehow (i.e. longer school years with more frequent mini-vacations) then I think truancy would drop off somewhat, though of course it’s only one part of the problem.

My second problem with this is the fact that the State of California has agreed to absorb the cost of these devices, priced at $300-400 a piece, justifying it by claiming that each student absence costs the school system approximately $35 a day. Therefore, a student would have to miss between 8.57 and 11.43 days of school in order to equal the cost of the device s/he would presumably receive. Chronic truancy in California is defined as missing ten percent or more of the school days in a given year; if we assume a traditional 180-day school year (four quarters of 9 weeks each), that means a student would miss 18 days and cost the school district $630. However, students in this program are given the devices after four absences — I imagine if truancy in Anaheim is bad enough to consider this program in the first place then we are talking quite a few GPS units to go around.

Setting the numbers aside, we encounter the problem of overlap. If a student costs the school district $35 a day then s/he will cost that much no matter whether s/he is in school or not. Therefore, by purchasing the GPS units the state is merely eating away more of the education budget rather than saving anybody any money. Why is money being pulled out of taxpayers’ pockets and poured into a program like this instead of being used to fund well-rounded educations or subsidizing positive educational programs? Why aren’t officials addressing the root of truancy issues instead of throwing technology at the problem? If they are trying to step in as “parent” figures, they are doing no better a job than the parents they are trying to replace.

And that, of course, leads to the third problem — we are turning into a technocratic society that relies on gadgets to take the place of real human engagement. These children shouldn’t be held accountable to a piece of plastic with microchips inside; they should be held accountable to the parents, teachers and peers who are negatively impacted by their decision to skip school. We should be engaging with them, instead of outsourcing their care to technology. It’s bad enough that parents are giving their tweens and teens unfettered access to cell phones, social media and other technology that should be beyond them without adding on another layer. Parenting means engaging with your children, not tethering them to electronics. Maybe if people remembered that, school districts wouldn’t need to resort to stunts like this.

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