Huntsville City Schools in Alabama will soon be tracking which students are riding on school buses and where they’re getting on and off.

Starting in February, students at three schools in the district will be issued identification cards with radio frequency identification device (RFID) technology. As riders board and leave the bus, a scanner will pick up the signal and log them in and out. Combined with GPS, the system will then transmit the location data to a remote server that a Huntsville school official can access if needed.

Called ZPass, Keith Ward, spokesman for Huntsville City Schools said the program — developed by Zonar Systems — is designed to enhance child safety and should provide peace of mind for parents if their children aren’t on the bus they expect them on. The initial pilot project will consist of an elementary school, middle school and high school.

“If you have a student that inadvertently gets on the wrong bus or an elementary student that wants to go home with their best friend and didn’t communicate with their parents, that can cause a lot of stress for people trying to locate that child,” Ward said.

Using ZPass, if a child got on a school bus, a school district official can quickly pull the data and determine which bus and what stop the student got off at. The information can then be relayed to concerned parents, caregivers and — if the situation requires — law enforcement personnel.

Currently, Huntsville City Schools use buses are outfitted with video surveillance. But Ward explained the district wanted to upgrade to something that would be more efficient than manually going through the video to find a child.

Each card reader will cost approximately $400 per bus, and a yearly $75 fee is assessed for each of the units. Ward indicated that if the program is deemed successful, it would be deployed districtwide on all buses next fall.

Security Concerns?

The tracking system will be handled entirely by Zonar. The data collected will go to a server provided and hosted by the vendor that a Huntsville City Schools representative will be able to access online through an encrypted website.

Ward said that even if someone acquired the username and password for the school district’s account, the Web portal from Zonar isn’t located on the company’s homepage. So while not impossible to find, the login screen would be difficult to locate.

In addition, for those parents who think this system will allow them to remotely log in and check up on their kids — think again. Although Zonar offers an upgraded version of Zpass that would allow parents to receive tracking info from their children via mobile device or on a computer, Huntsville City Schools isn’t pursuing that option.

“It’s only going to be someone at the district level that has the ability to access the information,” Ward said.

So what happens when students forget to bring their identification cards, lose them, or — *gasp* — play games regarding checking in as they get on the bus? Ward said a variety of policies are being developed to address various situations.

School bus drivers will be expected to watch each student use their card as they board and exit. Ward explained that the system makes a loud “beep” when used, so monitoring use should be fairly easy. For those who lose the cards, extras are being made and the district is expecting students and their parents to handle getting a replacement fairly quickly.

“If you come three consecutive days and you haven’t resolved your issue with your card, you would not be allowed to ride the bus,” Ward said.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.