Schools turn to 'smart lockers' to track student activity

To the chagrin of privacy advocates, card-swipe system allows principals to access student storage areas.

Next to a picture of his girlfriend, Demario Smith has an illegal stash in his locker at Crawford County High School.

It's not a pen-knife or a baggie of pot. It's a cache of magazines with glossy pictures of low-rider cars which, at this school in rural Georgia, is forbidden.

The locker has long been viewed by students as their own two square feet of personal space in schools.

But that may soon change. A new invention called the "smart locker" would allow principals across the country easy access to lockers and even monitor how often students use them.

Opened with "swipe cards," rather than padlocks, these lockers can be operated from a computer in the central office where they can be opened individually or all at once. It would even be possible to conduct a "schoolwide lockdown."

And if a student uses his locker when he should be in class, the school will soon know about it. Officials may even be tipped off as to whether a student is using his storage space for drug dealing.

"If a principal notices that a student is going in and out of his locker 18 times a day, that can raise suspicions," says Harry Popolow, senior project manager of Penco, a manufacturer of the smart lockers.

Already, four major school districts have already lined up to buy and some techno-keen kids call the idea "way cool." Yet critics say that these devices whittle away at the tiny sliver of privacy students have at school.

Proponents argue it's a necessary step to keep guns and drugs out of schools.

"It's an idea whose time, unfortunately, has come," says John Locke, CEO of Digitech International, the Asheville, N.C., firm that developed the software.

It's also an idea with a potentially huge market considering that there are some 150 million school lockers in the US. And, although each locker can cost as much as $300 each, studies show that most principals consider "security" a top priority.

But many principals, though cognizant of student-privacy rights, will likely take a hard look at the new system. It would allow them, for example to search lockers for guns.

The idea of keeping closer tabs on individual students for the safety of the whole is catching on. "Public schools have to become safer," Mr. Popolow says.

Proponents say the courts have ruled that, essentially, the school can do "anything it wants" with school property. But others say that principals still have to apply the basic tenets of the Fourth Amendment's guarantees against warrantless searches and seizures.

"You're definitely invading privacy when you're talking about tracking their comings and goings," says C.L. Lindsay III, the director of the Coalition for Student and Academic Rights (COSTAR) in Solebury, Pa. "Whether that's an invasion that's too invasive, that's still up in the air."

The irony, many say, is that these efforts often target kids who aren't doing anything wrong.

"It's sort of the idea of you and I having homes and the local police having the keys," says Michael Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Reston, Va.

For now, Penco has received more applause than resistance. Indeed, most college dorms in America now have replaced metal keys with plastic cards.

Many teens would love to flash cards. At Southwest Magnet High School and Law Academy in Macon, Ga., Sharda Davis, a freshman, says students there would love such lockers, since they could stop a problem of students breaking into each other's lockers.

But here in Roberta, Smith says he'd rather keep his own personal combination lock and private access. "These smart lockers would allow a school to fool around where they're not supposed to be."

The locker is a glimmer of personality in a gray institution, he says. In a way, the lockers here are the front porch of the hallway, where students gather to flirt and pin up pictures of Linkin Park and Shaq.

"In these huge schools of 3,000 and 4,000 students, the only things that make you an individual are the way you dress and your personal locker space," says Carr.

Other critics see smart lockers as part of a trend where spy gadgets like surveillance cameras, metal detectors and profiling technology are tested on a young generation at the stage where they're taking on the mantle of citizens.

"There does seem to be an assumption that it's OK to impose these kinds of technologies on students when other citizens certainly wouldn't put up with it," says Ann Beeson, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C.

For now, at least, Demario Smith doesn't have to worry too much. Ken Copenhaver, the assistant principal at Crawford County High says, "It sounds like a great idea, but there's no way our rural school district could afford those kinds of lockers. We have too many other things to worry about, like getting new textbooks."

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