Brushing aside privacy concerns by parents and civil rights activists, a Texas school district has gone live with a controversial program requiring all students to wear a locator radio chip that will enable officials to track their every move – or face expulsion.
At the beginning of the school year students at John Jay High School and Anson Jones Middle School within the Northside Independent School District were told their old student ID badges were no longer valid. During registration they were required to obtain new badges containing a radio frequency identification tracker chip.
Students refusing the chips were reportedly threatened with suspension, fines, or being involuntary transferred. Unlike chips used by retailers to track inventory which activate when scanned by a reader, these chips contain batteries and actively broadcast a continuous signal.
On October 1, the schools went live with a program to use the chips to track the exact locations of students using the badges. The badges would even be able to tell if a student in a classroom is in his seat or somewhere else in the room.
The district’s stated reason is to help obtain funding from the state by documenting the number of students who attend the school.
WOAI television reported district spokesman Pasqual Gonzalez said the two schools have a high rate of truancy, and the district could gain $2 million in state funding by improving attendance.
According to the San Antonio newspaper, the program is expected to cost the district $526,065 to implement with annual cost of $136,005 per year to continue running the program.
However, a counselor at the school told Steve Hernandez, a parent whose daughter Andrea is a sophomore at John Jay, that the district currently does not have any single person assigned to monitor the location of students or track the data.
“That destroys the argument that the purpose to track students for attendance purposes,” Hernandez said. “How are they supposed to safeguard privacy concerns if no one is responsible for its administration?”
The website ChipFreeSchools.com cites health concerns over the chips and includes a position paper from groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Big Brother Watch, Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom, Constitutional Alliance, Freedom Force International, Friends of Privacy USA, the Identity Project and Privacy Activism said no students should be subjected to the “chipping” program “unless there is sufficient evidence of its safety and effectiveness.”
“Children should never be used as test subjects for technology, no matter what their socio-economic status. If schools choose to move forward without complete information and are willing to accept the associated liability, they should have provisions in place to adhere to the principles of fair information practices and respect individuals’ rights to opt out based on their conscientious and religious objections,” the statement said.
The paper said RFID tracking is dehumanizing, since it can “monitor how long a student or teacher spends in a bathroom stall.”
The plans also violate free speech and association, since the presence of a tracking device “could dissuade individuals from exercising their rights to freedom of thought, speech and association. For example, students might avoid seeking counsel when they know their RFID tags will document their presence at locations like counselor and School Resource Officer offices.”
Andrea Hernandez has refused to wear the new badge citing religious and privacy concerns. She said that since the policy went into effect several students have engaged in civil disobedience by leaving their badges at home. However, Hernandez has been wearing her old badge to school in an attempt to have some form of ID.
While the district has not yet expelled any students for refusing to wear the badges, Hernandez has already faced consequences for her refusal to take the chip.
“About two weeks ago when I went to cast my vote for homecoming king and queen I had a teacher tell me I would not be allowed to vote because I did not have the proper voter ID,” she explained. “I had my old student ID card which they originally told us would be good for the entire four years we were in school. He said I needed the new ID with the chip in order to vote.”
In an attempt to obtain legal help, Andrea’s father, Steve Hernandez reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union, but was rebuffed because organization officials didn’t feel Andrea’s religious concerns would advance their core mission.
In an email to Hernandez, Rebecca Robertson with the ACLU of Texas told him, “the ACLU of Texas will not be able to represent you or your daughter in this matter.”
In citing its reasons for refusing to take the case Robertson said among the factors they use to decide to take a case are whether it “has the potential to achieve broad and lasting advances in civil liberties” and as such, Andrea’s case does not apparently meet that threshold.
WND requests to the district for comment were not returned.
In an October 2 letter, Deputy Superintendent Ray Galindo said he was willing to let Hernandez wear a badge without the chip, but then goes on to portray the issue as one of her refusing to wear any type of ID.
“We are simply asking your daughter to wear an ID badge as every other student and adult on the Jay campus is asked to do.”
Galindo went on to suggest there would be consequences if she did not agree to wear the new badge.
“I urge you to accept this solution so that your child’s instructional program will not be affected. As we discussed, there will be consequences for refusal to wear an ID card as we begin to move forward with full implementation.”
Steve Hernandez said the so-called accommodation actually came with other strings attached.
“He told me in a meeting that if my daughter would proudly wear her student ID card around her neck so everyone could see, he would be able to quietly remove her chip from her student ID card,” Hernandez explained. “He went on to say as part of the accommodation my daughter and I would have to agree to stop criticizing the program and publicly support … it. I told him that was unacceptable because it would imply an endorsement of the district’s policy and my daughter and I should not have to give up our constitutional rights to speak out against a program that we feel is wrong.”
Andrea Hernandez said that since she has begun taking the stand she has been surprised by how many students agree with her.
“On Monday a group of students came up to me in the lunch room asking me about the chips after they saw me appear on television,” she said. “I got the majority to understand there were legitimate reasons for not wearing the badge. Many of them thanked me, saying they were uncomfortable with wearing them, but were unsure how to explain why they should not have to wear them.”
She went on to say while some students have said they didn’t have a problem wearing the badges, she is not aware of any who enthusiastically support the program.
Heather Fazio, executive director of Texans for Accountable Government, said the district has not been willing to take steps to listen to parent’s concerns over the chips.
“The school board refuses to put it on the agenda or hold a forum where the matter can be debated publicly,” Fazio said. “Parents are allowed to speak to the board on any item not on the agenda, but the board is under no obligation to respond to what is being said. When we mentioned our concerns to them, they looked at us with indifference.”
Highlighting the dangers the chips pose to student privacy issues even while off campus, Fazio said she was able to get list containing the names and addresses of all of the students in the district by filing a Freedom of Information Request.
“After paying a $30 fee with the FOIA request I was able to get every student’s name and address,” Fazio explained. “Using this information along with an RFID reader means a predator could use this information to determine if the student is at home and then track them wherever they go. These chips are always broadcasting so anyone with a reader can track them anywhere.”
Andrea says while the school has not yet taken any retaliatory action, she is concerned that there will come a time when they will decide to retaliate.
“It is just a matter of time before they write me up and expel me. This would put a big black mark on my record if this were to happen, but I don’t feel I should be punished for standing up for my religious rights and privacy issues.”
She said, “In order to get into the Science and Engineering Academy I had to have good grades, great attendance, and be in pre-AP [advanced placement] classes. I had to fill out an application and write an essay about why I would be a good student. Now they want to take the education that I have worked so hard for away from me because I refuse to wear a tracker.”