Safety by Satellite

With security issues on the rise, several schools use GPS to track students.

by / October 13, 2003
Government and private industry have used GPS in various ways for 20 years. Other markets, however, are just catching on -- schools are GPS's newest fans, using it to ensure student safety when school violence, terrorist attack and kidnapping concerns are on the rise.

Christ Lutheran School in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., recently sent 35 eighth-grade students to Washington, D.C. Eighth-graders at Christ Lutheran have made the annual trek for years, but 2003's class took something new with them -- a wristwatch-like GPS locator that tracked each child's location within 30 meters.

"Parents were pleased," said school principal Jim Neumann. "There's obviously concern about travel due to the war and terrorist attacks, but this device helped ease fears because parents knew their kids were safe. They were excited to know they could track their kids and find out exactly where they were."

Christ Lutheran arranged to test the GPS locator from Wherify Wireless, a developer of wireless location products and services based in Redwood Shores, Calif. The device uses a PCS network and GPS receiver. During the field trip, parents logged onto the Wherify Web site, entered a security code and the system sent an SMS message to the device.

"It's essentially a page with some data that tells the device to locate itself," said Bob Stern, Wherify's director of corporate communications. "Once the page reaches the device, the GPS receiver wakes up, identifies the three or more satellite signals it needs to determine its location, calculates its fix and sends an SMS message back to us with the location, latitude and longitude."

Parents could see exactly where their child was 3,000 miles across the country on an aerial map showing physical surroundings, or on a street map like those featured on MapQuest.

"I was really excited they had it, because it gave me a security that -- even though I knew where they were going -- I could find out where my son was at any time," said Linda Toledo, parent of a Christ Lutheran eighth grader. "Every so often I'd punch it in the computer and see where they were currently, where they were the night before, where they were headed. It was exciting to see that. It helped me feel a part of it too."

With the location history feature, parents could view a map of where the student traveled during the day and send numeric pages with a device included in the system. Parents could also declare an emergency over the Internet or by calling Wherify, and the company would contact 911 immediately. Fortunately that feature wasn't used during the trip.

Wherify's system was designed for individual sale and use, but Stern said the company is open to supporting more group uses. "A lot of parents were worried about the trip. We thought it was a great way to give parents peace of mind," he said.

Neumann and others at Christ Lutheran said they are looking to use the technology for next year's Washington, D.C., trip, and the annual seventh grade Catalina Island visit.

"With devices like the Wherify locator, we believe participation and parent satisfaction in such events will be higher in the future," said Robert Gourley, director of the school's board of education.

Following the Bus
Schools also are beginning to use GPS to track students traveling to and from campus.

Last year, a school bus hijacked in Pennsylvania was later found in Washington, D.C. While no one was hurt, the incident prompted school officials across the United States to look more closely at technology to help ensure safety of students traveling to and from school.

Hunterdon/Flemington-Raritan Regional High School District in New Jersey tested a system in spring 2003 that uses GPS and a student tracking system on school buses. Six buses were equipped with GPS units, card stripe readers and software from VersaTrans Solutions and TracerNET.

Each morning, bus drivers swiped their ID cards through the reader, which downloaded a list of authorized student riders for each bus. When students boarded the buses, they also swiped their ID cards. As each bus pulled away from each stop, the vehicle's location and names of its riders were transmitted back to the school's transportation center using a cellular-based data-only messaging service.

Although school officials felt the program was successful, it was not continued beyond its three-month trial because of staffing changes. Officials hope to use the system again.

Another safety concern prompted a similar system installation in Indian River County, Fla. In 1999, a school bus full of elementary students collided with a citrus truck, killing two students and injuring a dozen. School officials wanted to know exactly who was on the bus, but had no way to find out.

A combination GPS and student ID tracking program is being tested in the district, and school officials hope it will prevent a reoccurrence of that scenario. The system, supplied by Integrated Systems Research of Miami, will incorporate a thumbprint reader or an infrared card reader on each bus. Students will place their thumb on a scanner or present their student ID as they board and depart each bus. By sending the GPS data through an incorporated Nextel system, the school's central computer will keep a running list of which students are on which bus.

The pilot system has been installed on 10 of the district's buses, with plans for a student identification system to be added this fall.
Justine Brown Contributing Writer
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