Texas school uses RFID badges to track student locations

As part of a controversial trial that could someday include 112 schools and nearly 100,000 students, Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, recently issued students at two of its campuses new badges with an embedded RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip in order to track their locations.

Northside Independent School District

Unlike passive chips that transmit data only when scanned by a reader, these chips have batteries and broadcast a constant signal so they can track students’ exact locations on school property, down to where they’re sitting—whether it’s at a desk, in a counselor’s office, or on the toilet.

The program went live on October 1 at John Jay High School and Anson Jones Middle School where students now must wear the new badges in a lanyard around their necks. Without the badge, a student can't access the library and cafeteria, or buy tickets to extracurricular activities. The school district has threatened to suspend, fine or involuntarily transfer students who refuse to wear them.

Civil disobedience

Some of the students are challenging the district's order.

Andrea Hernandez says she has religious and privacy concerns and has refused to wear the tracking badge.

“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,” reports WND. Without the high-tech version, however, Hernandez was not allowed to vote for homecoming king and queen.

Behind the tracking

One reason the school district decided to try the tracking badges was to get state funding. “Because budgets are tied to average daily attendance, schools lose cash—as much as $175,000 a day—if students aren’t in their seats when homerooms do roll call in the morning. However, if the student is on campus, they’re technically present,” states the website ChipFreeSchools.com.

John Jay High SchoolNorthside Independent School District, Texas
John Jay High School

The two schools have a high truancy rate and the district hopes to garner an extra $2 million in funding by cracking down on errant kids.

One has to assume the schools are interested in actually educating the students, and there’s no doubt that education will be more effective if more students are attending class. In addition, if state fiscal support remains high, the district certainly have more resources with which to educate students more effectively. And the Northside website that provides information about the “’Smart’ Student ID Cards project” makes a reasonable point. “Our students' parents expect that we always know where their children are in our schools,” it says.

First and Fourth Amendment issues

Yet people continue to voice privacy and legal concerns.

In August, several privacy advocacy groups put out a position paper (PDF) which argues that RFID tracking in schools violates students’ rights to free speech and association because the technology tracks not only an individual’s location, but it can monitor which people congregate together.

The paper also maintains that mandating that students wear RFID chips conditions them to accept a Big Brother world.

Anson Jones Middle SchoolNorthside Independent School District, Texas
Anson Jones Middle School

“Young people learn about the world and prepare for their futures while in school. Tracking and monitoring them in their development may condition them to accept constant monitoring and tracking of their whereabouts and behaviors. This could usher in a society that accepts this kind of treatment as routine rather than an encroachment of privacy and civil liberties,” the paper says.

“Requiring children to wear RFID tags while on school grounds infringes upon their Fourth Amendment right from unreasonable search and seizure, and … Courts should readopt the probable cause standard as the appropriate standard to be applied to the use of RFID technology in schools,” writes Alexander C. Hirsch last year in the Journal of Computer and Information Law at The John Marshall Law School.

Tagging kids isn't new

“Tagging school children with RFID chips is uncommon, but not new,” reports Wired. “A federally funded preschool in Richmond, California, began embedding RFID chips in students’ clothing in 2010. And an elementary school outside of Sacramento, California, scrubbed a plan in 2005 amid a parental uproar. And a Houston, Texas, school district began using the chips to monitor students on 13 campuses in 2004.”

Today RFID chips are embedded in a variety of things, including passports, security passes, and store inventory, and can be used to do things like track livestock.

What’s your take on the subject? Have the civil liberties of these kids been breached? Is there a better solution to truancy issues, perhaps with help from technology?

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