Missouri School Reverses Direction to Allow Student Heart-Rate Monitors

Published March 9, 2012

After deciding to scrap a program requiring elementary school students to wear heart-rate activity monitors due to a national outcry over privacy concerns, the Parkway School District in St. Louis County, Missouri has changed its mind again and will move ahead with plans to expand beyond the pilot phase conducted this spring.

Maureen Martin, senior legal analyst at The Heartland Institute, which publishes InfoTech & Telecom News, strongly opposes the use of the monitors in schools. She says schools can barely educate, which is their primary task, and they ought to be monitoring why Johnny can’t read, not what his heart rate is.

“Administrators at the Parkway School District are going ahead with plans to place devices on 400 elementary school students to monitor their body movement, after parental objections led to temporary shelving of the project,” said Martin. “For now, the project will be limited to use of the devices in physical education class, but the district eventually plans for students to wear them during the entire school day and eventually at home.”

“There are many unanswered questions about these devices and their proposed use by the district, and parents deserve better. Only the vaguest information is available about them on the district’s Web page. Parents need to know much more about the devices, including capabilities, if any, beyond motion detection,” says Martin.

Assuming Monitors Know, People Don’t
The district purchased 400 of the wristwatch-like devices in 2011 for $90 apiece from Polar Electro, a Finnish company. Some 75 of the devices were issued to third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade pupils at four of the district’s elementary schools. They were to be used by the students to measure the quality and duration of their exertions during physical education class, and compared with national recommendations for daily activity.

In the future, students will wear the monitors throughout the school day to determine their activity levels, a district spokesperson said.

“Can’t we just use common sense here?” asked Martin. “The monitors are said to record activity levels as ‘rest, easy, moderate, vigorous.’ Why assume kids and their parents don’t know the difference without a computer attached to their wrists?”

Checking Constitutional Rights
Shelley Pfohl, executive director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, told the Des Moines Register schools should be bringing in many types of technology, whether Exerbikes (a video game-bicycle hybrid) or heart-rate monitors.

However, Professor Alan Howard, a First Amendment expert at Saint Louis University Law School, says although the school district may be motivated to monitor the kids with their best interests in mind, there are limits to what it can do.

“The courts have said students don’t check their First Amendment rights by entering the walls of the schoolhouse,” Howard said. “You can’t attach these devices onto the kids just for going to school. It goes too far. Technically, if some parents wanted to challenge the district, they might do it on Fourth Amendment grounds,” he said.

“It’s one thing if I’m under house arrest and the terms of my punishment require me to wear an ankle bracelet with a GPS to keep track of my movements,” Howard continued, “but it’s quite another if I have to wear some sort of device to attend school.”

Opt–Out Possibility?
Roger L. Goldman, the Callis Family Law professor at the Saint Louis University Law School, said he has many questions regarding the monitors.

“When they rolled this program out, some of these questions were answered, but every parent would want to know to what extent they’re only monitoring their children’s heart rates and whether they could remain anonymous and opt out,” he explained.

“Physically hooking you up is certainly a touchy subject. It brings up another level of concern, because that’s usually something we reserve for criminals,” Goldman added.

David Roland, director of litigation at the libertarian Freedom Center of Missouri, said the biggest question is whether the parents could opt in or opt out.

“This question applies to a lot of school-related programs and activities—sex education, field trips, etc. Parents should always have the final say about their children,” he said.

“One of the broader issues in this case is that the government thinks it doesn’t have to ask anyone before it intrudes into people’s lives. There are some very real reasons why people might not want to have their children’s personal health data collected,” said Roland.

“The district says that no data is to be uploaded to public records,” said Martin. “But student records are not public records, so this statement seems deceptive. Other district publications are more candid: The information will be uploaded, at least for teacher use. Assuming the devices truly only detect motion, they may be of use in PE classes. But the district has no business monitoring activity levels elsewhere, including at home.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.

Internet Info
“Parkway Going Ahead with Polar Monitor Project,” Mary Shapiro, St. Louis Journal, January 30, 2012: http://www.stltoday.com/suburban-journals/metro/education/parkway-going-ahead-with-polar-monitor-project/article_9dcfea10-5871-51ff-97a4-590b944983f4.html