Skipping school just got harder for Stevenson students

A Northwest suburban high school is one of the first in the nation allowing parents to use mobile devices to track when and where their students have boarded and exited school buses.

It's an expansion of Stevenson High School's existing computerized bus pass system, which requires students to scan their ID cards before and after rides — something they've been doing for about two years.

Through the new MyFirstPass system, developed by the First Student bus company, parents can use cellphones, tablets or computers to determine what time their kids' cards were scanned. Until now, they've been able to do that only using computers.

School and company officials say the technology addresses a potential safety concern.

“(It provides) parents the option to have certainty that their student was picked up or dropped off,” said Jim Conrey, a spokesman for the Lincolnshire school.

Of course, there are ways around the system. Students can swap IDs before boarding or ask friends to scan their cards if they want to mislead parents about their whereabouts, Conrey acknowledged.

But since students have had to scan their IDs to board buses since 2012, such deception isn't a new idea, Conrey said.

The software doesn't raise any immediate privacy concerns for civil-rights advocates.

“Parents have information about students being present at school,” said Ed Yohnka, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. “This looks like an early notice of that same thing.”

The system launched Jan. 31. Parents of 35 students registered the first weekend, officials said. That's a tiny fraction of the roughly 1,700 students who ride buses daily.

More than 3,700 students attend Stevenson.

The school is the first in Illinois to use the Cincinnati bus company's software. The others are in Cincinnati and Burbank, Calif., First Student spokeswoman Jen Biddinger said.

The MyFirstPass system replaces First Student's Z-Pass tracking software at Stevenson. The hardware on the buses hasn't changed.

The school implemented Z-Pass in January 2012 to measure student ridership trends and to track students as they got on and off buses, Conrey said. It also conditions teens to carry their IDs at all times, he said.

The system uses the data strips on Stevenson's student IDs. Students hold their IDs up to a reader that beeps and flashes a green light when the card is detected.

Parents can log in to a website to see if their children have boarded buses. They can also get that information via text messages or other mobile alerts. Apps needed to access the data from mobile devices are available for Android and Apple devices.

The program will tell parents the day, time and location their kid boarded a bus.

“Knowing if and when a student got on or off the bus accounts for a significant portion of calls parents make to schools,” First Student's Biddinger said. “MyFirstPass provides accurate and immediate answers, taking the guesswork out of the bus stop.”

Students' personal information is kept confidential at a password-protected website. A Stevenson High dean and a representative from First Student will have access to the data, Conrey said.

The software is being used only for bus rides, Conrey said. Stevenson students aren't required to scan their IDs any time they enter or leave classrooms or other areas.

As such, school officials can't use the cards to determine where a particular student is at a particular time, Conrey said.

Still, some students were uncomfortable with the expanded service.

“School and parents don't need to know how you get to school, as long as you're there,” senior Chris Padavonia said.

Fellow senior Kolin Jungmann wasn't concerned.

“It's just a quick swipe, and I've got (my card) in my wallet,” Jungmann said.

Participation in MyFirstPass is free for the rest of the 2013-14 term, but it will carry a subscription fee starting with the fall semester, Conrey said.

First Student is looking to expand the software so parents and students will eventually be able to determine how far a bus is from a stop, Conrey said. But that real-time tracking won't be ready this year.

“We're hopeful it would be available in the 2014-15 school year,” he said.

  The high-tech system allows parents to track when their kids board and exit buses. Steve Lundy/
  Stevenson High School has implemented ZPass scanners on their busses. The high-tech system allows parents to track when their kids board and exit busses. Steve Lundy/
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