Schools’ Electronic Monitors to Track Student Exercise

Published January 24, 2012

The athletic chair of Bay Shore, a Long Island, New York school system, has raised privacy concerns by ordering electronic monitors to track students’ physical activities both on- and off-campus.

The New York Post reported January 15 that Ted Nagengast, the Bay Shore athletics chair, claimed the monitors are “a great reinforcement in fighting the obesity epidemic. It tells kids, in real time, ‘Am I active? Am I not active?’ We want to give kids the opportunity to become active.”

Nagengast ordered 10 Polar Active monitors at $90 each, and plans on putting them to use in spring 2012. The monitors are worn around users’ wrists and measure heartbeats, motion, and sleep activity. Data collected by the monitors is transmitted to a Web site, which is accessible by password to students and school employees.

The Post reported the monitors are already in use in school districts in St. Louis, Missouri and South Orange, New Jersey and have been employed without parental consent and, in some instances, parents’ knowledge.

Privacy Issues Raised
Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based think tank, said the monitors present “a very serious privacy issue.”

He explained, “We as a culture [and] society have very strong privacy norms around individual health. Everyone knows and understands doctor-patient confidentiality,” he said. “In the debate over electronic health records, empirical research clearly demonstrates that patients are most concerned about increased sharing of their health information, even if that sharing is supposedly for their benefit. People want and are entitled to control over whether they share such personal data, with whom, under what conditions, [and] for what purposes.”

“If it’s true that parents weren’t clearly informed about monitoring devices being placed on their children, I view that as unethical, and the schools as unconscionably cavalier,” he said. “Indeed, if that’s true, it suggests that the schools recognized that they were in dangerous territory,” he added.

“School officials will undoubtedly be recording vital signs like heart rate in the students’ permanent record,” said Maureen Martin, senior legal analyst at The Heartland Institute, which publishes InfoTech & Telecom News. “This is a gross invasion of privacy, particularly without parental consent.”

Reading, Not Heart Rate
Michael Van Beek, director of education at the free-market, Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, says the monitors are “not a proper use of tax dollars that is meant for educating students. It’s odd that schools continually cry for more resources, but seem all too eager to expand their missions beyond their core mission.”

Martin agrees with Van Beek. “Schools can barely educate, which is their primary task,” she said. “The United States is trailing many countries around the world in scholastic achievement. Finland particularly comes to mind. This has serious repercussions for the future. The schools ought to be monitoring why Johnny can’t read, not what his heart rate is,” she said.

“School officials have no business tracking students’ physical activity 24/7, for all sorts of reasons,” Martin said.

She added, “The avowed purpose of electronic monitors, according to school officials, is to answer the questions: ‘Am I active? Am I not active?’ If school officials and teachers can’t answer these questions without an electronic monitor, they should be fired.

“School officials say the monitors will encourage passive students to be more active,” Martin continued. “Schools are not equipped to play doctor. Is a student’s heart rate low? Maybe there’s a medical reason why. Maybe she’s sick. Or sprained an ankle. Or has a heart problem. Or a concussion from sports. Is a student’s heart rate high? Maybe he’s anxious—who wouldn’t be with a monitor attached? These are medical issues, not educational ones,” she said.

“Use of these monitors is illegal,” Martin concluded. “It ought to be stopped. Immediately.”

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of InfoTech & Telecom News.

Internet Info

“Schools Spy on Fat Kids: Monitors Raise Privacy Fear,” Mary Kay Lingen, New York Post, January 15, 2012: