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City Council considering 'One Card' for Baltimore youths

A Baltimore city councilman wants the city to issue a single identification card allowing young people to ride buses and use other school and government services, but a civil liberties advocate says the proposal raises privacy concerns.

The One Card would be modeled after programs in cities including Washington and Boston, where young residents use the ID to enter facilities such as libraries and recreation centers and use services including the bus system.

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City Councilman Brandon Scott called for a hearing on the idea, saying a One Card system would help Baltimore better serve young people by offering easier access to services.

He said it would be more convenient for youths than having to carry multiple cards — school IDs, library cards and Maryland Transit Administration bus passes — and would help city government better serve the population by gathering performance and usage data for programs.

"In 2015, it is idiotic and financially irresponsible that we give kids three different cards to do three things that one card can do," Scott said.

An investigative hearing on the proposal will be held at 4 p.m. Thursday at City Hall.

The idea was met with trepidation by a top official of the ACLU of Maryland, who said such a card could potentially create access barriers for students and threaten their privacy.

David Rocah, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, worried that losing the card could block students from entering their schools. And misuse of the data it could unlock would be illegal, he said.

For instance, Scott suggested the cards could allow the head of a recreation center to access a student's academic records to tailor services to student needs. Rocah said doing that would violate the student's right to privacy.

"These cards should not be a way of creating dossiers about kids with data that crosses the boundaries of the different government entities that they have to or want to interact with," Rocah said.

Scott's proposal calls for the card to be issued in the form of a student ID, and produce data that is already accessible through means such as sign-in sheets at recreation centers and libraries.

"This isn't information that we don't already have," Scott said. "The information [would be in one] place to be used for good," he said.

Scott said that ultimately he would like to extend such a card to all city residents and expand its functions.

In Boston and Washington, the cards are used to give students access to their schools, libraries, recreation centers and transportation. But in other cities, including New York and Oakland, Calif., the cards are also used as prepaid debit cards and valid forms of identification to present to government agencies and police.

The city school system is supporting the One Card measure, and last spring piloted a similar program in three schools.

About 3,000 students were issued bus passes that were also used to track attendance at Commodore John Rodgers Elementary/Middle School, Digital Harbor High School and Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School. At Digital, the card could be used at the school's library to check out books.

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John Land, the school system's executive director of operations, said the pilot was generally a success.

The pilot ended in June, and the school system is in negotiations with the MTA to start it again.

Outfitting all schools with the card would cost about $3 million, and would have a recurring cost of about $1 million year for data service, maintenance and supplies, Land said.

The district now pays $5.2 million for MTA bus passes for about 34,000 of the district's 84,000 students.

Land said no one raised privacy concerns during the pilot — which allowed school officials to see students' movements on buses, including transfers. Officials also could track when students entered and exited their schools.

The district used the data to monitor truancy and alert school officials when students were using the transit system in the middle of the day.

"That was really the most powerful piece," Land said. "So we could really evaluate services" schools needed to address such issues.

Education policy advocates, however, worry that using the cards to take attendance takes authority away from the people who are best equipped to help students with attendance problems.

"It removes teachers from engaging in conversations around attendance," said Sue Fothergill, senior policy associate at the advocacy group Attendance Works. "I'm all about having information to deliver interventions to kids, but I'm not sure this is the right one."

The student data generated from the pilot was accessible by principals and the central office, and some of it was turned over to the Baltimore Education Research Consortium for a study, Land said.

Rocah said elements of the school system's pilot were troubling.

"That convenience could be good for the kids, and could be good for the government agencies involved," he said. "But none of that requires or justifies why the school system needs to know where the kids are going outside of school."

Thirty-four city schools are equipped with the hardware to support more ID card functions, and some are already using bus passes to take attendance, Land said.

Baltimore City College High School is one of them.

Two years ago, students had to use the card to swipe in and out of every class, and it took at least 10 minutes from instruction time as lines would back up outside classroom doors. Now, students at City use the card only to get in and out of the building.

Senior Bryonna Reed said she's comfortable with the more limited approach.

"Having to carry it everywhere, and attaching so much value to it is not the most comfortable thing for me," Reed said.

She also worried that it could be dangerous if information about how students spend their day got into the hands of people who wanted to harm them.

Reed said she would support a card like one currently available to city students called The Harbor Card, a discount program created by the Inner Harbor Project. The program offers a Harbor Card to young people, ages 13 to 19, who complete 10 hours of community service.

"If the city wants to provide more rewards to students, then it would be more beneficial — if they took away the tracking part of it," Reed said.

Scott said he believes the city could find a way to phase in the card over several years, responsibly and with lessons learned from other cities.

"The great thing about being last is that you don't make the same mistakes," Scott said. "We see there are places that it's working, and we can build on that success."

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