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Using Satellites to Track Wandering Students

Losing a child, especially in a crowded, unfamiliar place, is every parent and teacher's nightmare, and a concern during fieldtrips. Now a new, wristwatch-size Global Positioning System receiver allows students to be tracked and located in minutes. Included: Tips on how to use Global Positioning System technology in schools.

Parents of eighth graders at Christ Lutheran School in Rancho Palos Verde, California, understandably were a little nervous last year about their children traveling to Washington, D.C., on a school field trip. But thanks to a Global Positioning System (GPS) Locator, parents could log onto a computer and, with a mouse click, be in their children's footsteps -- whether the kids were having lunch or touring the Lincoln Memorial.

"We got positive feedback from parents who could see where their kids were," said principal Jim Neumann. "The implications are fantastic. It doesn't need to be a Washington, D.C. field trip; we could even use them on local field trips."

Christ Lutheran staff members only had one GPS locator on the trip, but the devices are designed to be worn by individuals, so they can be located quickly. Slightly larger than wristwatches, the devices can be locked on, and even unlocked remotely, if necessary. The locators cost $200 each, with a monthly service charge of between $19.95 and $45.99.


"These are about peace of mind," said Bob Stern, a spokesman for Wherify Wireless, the only company now making the devices. "When it comes to your child, you want to do what's best to keep the child safe. This way, you can locate a child on a field trip -- or on the way home from school."

If a child wearing a locator feels threatened, he or she can press a button and send out a 911 signal. Wherify operators alert the parents, who can log onto a Web site that requires a user identification and pinpoint their child's location. The parents then decide whether Wherify should contact police. "As long as the GPS is on and active, we can track a child," Stern said.

Wherify has used the devices in several cases to track and locate missing children and adults, but "worst case scenarios" -- in which children are abducted -- actually are rare, according to Stern.

In the year since the wrist devices have been on the market, sales have been good, Stern told Education World. Most of the buyers, however, have been parents and relatives of Alzheimer's Disease patients, whose illness often makes them forgetful and prone to wander away from home.

Wherify remains interested in the education market, however. "We have a number of retailers and affiliates who approach schools, PTOs, and community groups, like scouts," Stern said, noting that although other schools besides Christ Lutheran have been interested, budget resources prevent many of them from buying the technology. "As the price of this technology continues to decrease, and the devices get smaller, more schools will be interested in them," Stern said.


Christ Lutheran administrators learned about the GPS locators from a parent, who gave the school one to use on the Washington field trip, Neumann said. One adult on the trip carried the device, and the system worked well, even though the locator was left on the bus on a few occasions, he said.

The views of two other principals who discussed the locators with Education World was mixed, however.

"As an elementary school principal, I can tell you I'd be thrilled to use a GPS with students for field trips and the like," said Scott Hollinger, principal of McAuliffe Elementary School in McAllen, Texas. "The device also could prove valuable for use with children who have communication disabilities, and children who are runners, if parents didn't object," Hollinger noted. "The cost is prohibitive, however," he said. "We often take an entire grade level of students on field trips at the same time. That's 132 students plus teachers and chaperones. Based on the estimated price, that would require about $26,000 worth of equipment."

A middle school principal, though, said he didn't think $200 for a single GPS device was a justifiable expense.

"I have no doubt that most people on first glance would think this is a valuable safety measure to ensure that we know where students are," said Dr. Robert R. Heath, principal of W. C. Sullivan Middle School in Rock Hill, South Carolina. "However, if these folks were to go on any field trip -- and I can only honestly speak for our situation at Sullivan Middle School -- they would readily see that it would be unlikely that a child would get lost from the group. If a child was determined to remove himself from a field trip group, even with the GPS device, he would only need to remove it to succeed.

"There is plenty of 'sexy' technology being offered to educators," Heath continued. "This device fits in that category. We have an obligation to assess the true value of that technology, however, before using our often meager funding to make purchases. I have four or five opportunities to assess and purchase new, innovative technologies each year, but I only purchase those that present a clear, proven, cost-effective high value to the education and/or safety of our students."

Neumann of Christ Lutheran School, however, sees the devices as a good investment for his school and for all schools, and Christ Lutheran is considering purchasing more of them. "It seems to work, and the more people have it, the more beneficial it would be," Neumann said. "I think it's great. I think the ramifications for a school are fantastic."


Global Positioning System Overview

How GPS Receivers Work