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Parkway School District shelves fitness monitors

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Polar power

Fifth-grader Jennifer McGee (left) and Amy Sydnor, the physical education and health teacher at Ross Elementary School in Creve Coeur, show off a Polar Active monitor. Photo courtesy Parkway School District

ST. LOUIS COUNTY • The Parkway School District is taking away activity monitors given to elementary pupils for physical education classes due to a national controversy over privacy issues.

The 75 Polar Active devices, which are worn on the wrist and cost $90 each, were distributed last year to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade pupils at Henry, Ross and Shenandoah Valley elementary schools. The pupils were using them to measure the quality and duration of their exertion during PE classes then comparing those measurements to the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendations for activity.

Controversy emerged on an international scale when online reports said the monitors could be used to track disease risks and depression. From London's Daily Mail to a local blog, headlines have called the monitors intrusive. The Missouri Education Watchdog blog went so far as to state 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."

Locally, two Parkway parents spoke out about how the data would be used and stored. They also said they had not been aware that their children were wearing monitors nor asked for consent.

By last week, one of the parents, Beth Huebner, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, was tired of hearing about the monitors.

"I really don't care that much," she said. "This thing has been substantially blown out of proportion. I'm an athlete myself and find these tools extremely helpful. We think we're active and burning all these calories when we're not.

But she conceded, "There's a lot of concern about technology in general and how it's used and how health data are used."

And until Parkway can better educate parents about the devices and get signed permission slips, the district has put on hold plans to distribute 450 monitors to 18 other schools in the district.

"We're taking an extremely cautious approach," said Cathy Kelly, spokeswoman for the Parkway 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. As of right now, none of the kids are using the monitors."

The monitors that Parkway has bought do not pinpoint the location of students through GPS tracking, as some media outlets have reported. Nor do they measure heart rates, blood pressure or any vital signs that can determine a child's health.

Ron Ramspott, coordinator of health, outdoor and physical education for Parkway, said the students were logging their own data so they could establish baseline measurements, which are highly individual, then watch as their levels of endurance and activity changed.

Richard Goldman, professor of law at St. Louis University, thinks the concerns are reasonable and that the monitors could violate the pupils' Fourth Amendment rights, particularly if they wear them at home.

He said parents should be asking 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."

Ramspott said Parkway just wanted to get pupils moving.

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

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Polar Active activity monitors measure calories burned. This version has been updated to correct an earlier version with an incorrect statement about the monitors.

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