Boone County Board of Education tables ‘Zpass’ discussion upon parent concerns

Haley Parnell
Haley Parnell
Haley is a reporter for LINK nky. Email her at [email protected]

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Boone County Schools are working on the second phase of a proposed bus security feature, which consists of identification card readers on school buses.

Parents spoke at the Boone County Board of Education regular meeting held Thursday evening and asked the board to wait for a vote until their questions and concerns were answered. The board voted unanimously to table the item for further discussion at a future meeting.

The “Zpass” readers will contain a passive RFID chip, which students will use to show they’re on the bus. According to Boone County Schools, the reader will let parents and transportation officials know when the student does not get on or off the bus as expected. It will also allow immediate access to know who is currently on a bus in case of an accident, fire, etc.  

The project’s first phase began last year with upgraded GPS tracking software on district buses. The second phase with the Zpass sprung from the number of bus drivers in the district dwindling over the last two years.

Boone County Schools Assistant Superintendent for Operations Kim Best said that in the past, students would have the same bus driver who knew them by name. Now drivers have double and split runs, making tracking who gets on and off a bus difficult.

Alex Kapcar with Zonar Systems, the company behind the technology, was at the board of education meeting and described the Zpass as an “electronic attendance record” for a bus. Parents that spoke at the meeting raised safety concerns with the pass.

One person who spoke at the meeting did not state their name but addressed the board on their concerns on the RFID chip aspect of the pass.

“You want to chip these kids,” the person said. “Why do you want to know what these kids are doing after school? Because these chips are detectable. Scanner points can be read at any point of these things.”

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Best described the process and what data is stored on the card.

“Once the student scans onto the bus, that encrypted number is transmitted over their (Zonar) private VPN to the Zonar software,” Best said. “We upload only student name and student number to that. No other identifying demographics.”

She said the card is not linked to the school’s “Infinite Campus,” which houses further student information. Best said the cards are also not directly linked to the buses’ GPS. The pass readers on the bus also can not store data, according to Kapcar.

A parent with children who attend Conner Middle School also addressed the board with concerns about data security and the mandatory nature of the Zpass, which currently has no opt-out option.

Best said they chose not to offer an opt-out option because it would defeat the program’s purpose if only half of the students on the bus had passes and could be accounted for.

“If I’m a bad actor, I’m like a kid terrorist or something; how far away from the kid can I zap their information?” Boone County Board of Education member Jesse Parks asked Kapcar.

Kapcar said the card must be within about an inch of the Zonar reader plugged into the bus.

“That’s one way you can read the card is through the Zonar reader on the bus,” Kapcar said.

Parks asked Kapcar if his daughter was lost in Boone County, then could he use a piece of technology to find her RFID tag.

“No,” Kapcar said. “You could find out through transportation if she swiped onto a bus, and then using the technology, you could find out where the bus is.”

Kapcar said that Zonar had never had a security breach before.

Other key features of the pass outlined by the district are:

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  • Real-time, map-based bus locator
  • Support Assistant to answer questions
  • “Guaranteed” parent and student information privacy
  • Custom zones for each stop and facility
  • Email alerts and SMS messages
  • Zonar V4 GPS tracking integration
  • Available on smartphones, tablets, and computers
  • GPS, telematics, and routing data analytics for transportation efficacy

Best said the barcode on the card would be multifunctional and could also be used in the library and the cafeteria.

A Boone County Schools Transportation Department representative said losing kids is almost a daily occurrence, especially early in the year.

“Earlier in the year, as everybody’s getting to us the first two to four weeks, it’s a nightmare,” The representative said. “I do get phone calls consistently throughout the year.”

Best also said at the meeting that she hadn’t heard from any of their elementary school principals against the Zpass.

Boone County Board of Education Chair Karen Byrd said she and Parks have known about the program for over a year because they are the only two board members on the transportation committee.

“If anyone wants to get mad at anybody for us having the Zpass conversation, I insisted on that for the safety of students,” Byrd said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that it would go down the path that we are chipping kids like we’re asking them to stick out their arm and get a chip placed in it.”

Parks said he was also on board with the Zpass.

“We track the kid’s performance daily,” Parks said. “We track their attendance daily. We track their grades, their computer usage, and their YouTube usage. We track what books they get out of the library electronically. I looked at my daughter’s lunch account the other day, and it tracks what she eats. We track whether they play sports or not. And now, with the latest legislation, we even have to check their assigned gender at birth. Yet people are opposed to tracking who gets on the school bus. I am not opposed to tracking who gets on the school bus.”

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Parks said he opposed the $97,000 price tag that comes with the technology.

Though Parks and Byrd said they were on board with the Zpass, they agreed to table the conversation for more discussion and parent input. According to Best, no parents sit on the transportation or safety committees, and therefore no parents were involved in the discussion.

The board tossed around the idea of a parent survey to get a feel for who would want to opt out of the program, as that option is not currently being discussed. No formal plans were announced for a survey during the meeting.

Other common questions that arose during the meeting included:

  • If someone loses a pass, would they still be allowed on the bus? According to Best, students would still be allowed to ride the bus.
  • What is the cost of replacing a card? The replacement cost of the pass is $1.85, which would be paid for by the parents. If a parent couldn’t pay to replace a card, Best said she believes the district could help.
  • Do any other Kentucky School Districts utilize this technology? Two school districts in the state have the technology on the buses but still need to start the Zpass program.
  • If students don’t ride the bus, do they still need a card? According to Best, they would still be issued a card. She said students would need one for field trips on buses, and the barcode would work for lunch and at the library.
  • What is the technological life cycle of the card readers? According to Best, they have a three-year warranty. Kapcar said some Cincinnati Public School buses had had them for nine years. The kit replacement cost is $212.

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