St. Louis school district pulls activity monitors after concerns

Tuesday, January 24, 2012 | 11:40 a.m. CST

CHESTERFIELD — Activity monitors given to students at three suburban St. Louis grade schools have been taken away amid concerns that parental consent was not sought and that the monitors could be used to track disease risk and depression.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the Parkway School District last year distributed 75 Polar Active devices to students in third, fourth and fifth grades at Henry, Ross and Shenandoah Valley elementary schools. The devices, worn on the wrist and costing $90 each, were used to measure the quality and duration of their exertion during physical education classes. Those levels were then compared to the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendations for activity.

But some opponents are calling the devices intrusive. The Missouri Education Watchdog blog said of the devices that "there may also be assessments relating to student suicide, depression, cancer and diabetes risk. It can even track student sexual activity, drug and alcohol use."

At least two parents also raised objections, saying they had not been asked for consent. One of them, Beth Huebner, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the matter has been blown out of proportion, but conceded, "There's a lot of concern about technology in general and how it's used and how health data are used."

Parkway spokeswoman Cathy Kelly said the district decided to take a cautious approach. She said that until the district can better educate parents about the devices and get signed permission slips, it has put on hold plans to distribute 450 monitors to 18 other schools in the district.

"There's been a lot of misinformation in the media about these Polar Activity monitors that's caused confusion in our community, and we're trying to respect our parents' concerns," Kelly said. "As of right now, none of the kids are using the monitors."

The monitors purchased by Parkway do not pinpoint the location of students through GPS tracking. Nor do they measure heart rates, blood pressure, number of calories burned or any vital signs that can determine a child's health.

Kelly told The Associated Press that the devices were used only during PE class.

Ron Ramspott, coordinator of health, outdoor and physical education for Parkway, said the students logged their own data so they could establish baseline measurements. They then were able to watch as their levels of endurance and activity changed.

"We're trying to help students understand what that moderate or vigorous pace feels like and what they accumulate during a typical PE class," Ramspott said. "We're not collecting blood pressure or cholesterol or any biometry analysis and reporting it to health care."

But Saint Louis University law professor Richard Goldman said the monitors could violate the pupils' Fourth Amendment rights, particularly if they wear them at home. He said parents should determine what rights they have to control the data, whether it's anonymous, what safeguards will be in place to protect it, whether the district is going to give it or sell it to anyone, when it will be destroyed and whether the district has a privacy policy available to parents.

"This gets to the question of what happens to the data," Goldman said. "To the extent it is anonymous and can't be traced back to the individual, it could more likely survive a constitutional attack."


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