Update: On Thursday, January 17, the Fifth Circuit Court Of Appeals denied the Rutherford Institute's appeal to prohibit the removal of 15-year-old Andrea Hernandez from John Jay Science & Engineering Academy in San Antonio's Northside School District, pending the outcome of her case. Hernandez had refused to wear an RFID tracker on religious grounds. The device, implemented to students in a pilot program, monitored her whereabouts while on campus.
Hernandez' attorney, John W. Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, called the ruling a "sad statement on our nation's growing intolerance for dissent and for those whose religious beliefs may differ from the mainstream." Hernandez has asked school officials to respect her beliefs, let her use her old ID badge (without the tracking device), and let her stay in school.
How far are we willing to go to protect our children? Do we trample their rights in the hope of making them safer? In the wake of serious school violence and tragedy, many would probably say we can't possibly go too far. But at a magnet school in San Antonio, Texas, the recently launched Student Locator Project is putting that idea to the test. It's a year-long pilot program tracking the on-campus location of 4,200 middle and high school students - requiring them to wear SmartID card badges with embedded radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking devices. The movements of the kids are being followed everywhere they go on school grounds, from the lunch room to the bathroom.
Safer, Or Spied Upon?
That's right, San Antonio's Northside School District - with 100,000 students total, the fourth-largest in the Lone Star State - is tracking students much the same way scientists follow endangered species. Or deliveries. Or sex offenders. This isn't the first time tracking tags have been given to students, but unlike most earlier programs, this one is mandatory: It's happening whether students - or their parents - are okay with it or not.
And it's all perfectly legal. A judge in Texas ruled on Tuesday that because students are on school property, the district has the right to enforce this rule. Caught in the middle is a 15-year-old sophomore named Andrea Hernandez, who was expelled for refusing to wear the badge. Her reasoning was deeply personal. She says it violates her religious beliefs.
Hernandez, a devout Christian, viewed the badge as a mark of the beast, and her father filed suit. But U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia disagreed, calling the badge a "secular choice rather than a religious concern." His ruling forces Hernandez to make a choice: She now has until the end of the current semester - January 18 - to provide written notice to the school as to whether she will wear the badge. (In a key concession, the district offered to let her wear a badge without the tracking chip, but she has so far refused.)
Hernandez's legal representation, the civil-liberties-focused Rutherford Institute, requested a temporary injunction to the district's move while it prepares an appeal. Rutherford attorneys say that "the school’s attempts to penalize, discriminate and retaliate against Andrea violate her rights under Texas’ Religious Freedom Act and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution."
Safety? Or Cash?
And they say the main motive for the tracking measure doesn't even have anything to do with keeping students safe. Instead, it's all about money. Improved school attendance rates increase funding. And that's why the Rutherford Institute thinks the school is fighting so hard for this Big Brother program.
"School officials hope that by expanding the program to the district’s 112 schools, they can secure up to $1.7 million in funding from the state government," the Institute wrote on Tuesday.
According to Texas law, school funds are distributed based on students being present - every day students miss class, their school loses money. The district claimed it lost $1.7 million a year due to truancy. In a recent NBC article, district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez said the school is not trying to spy on students. Instead, he characterized the program as an attempt to make sure offenders aren't tardy and make it to homeroom when the morning bell rings.
The district describes the program this way on it's website: "Northside ISD is harnessing the power of radio frequency identification technology (RFID) to make schools safer, know where our students are while at school, increase revenues, and provide a general purpose 'smart' ID card."
"We're in a really precarious state in this country when we're debating a case like this," says Hernandez' attorney, John W. Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute. "In a state institution, can they force you into complete compliance," Whitehead asks. "I say No."
Right now the girl is in school, and not wearing the badge. "All she wants is a regular ID," Whitehead says, adding that he hopes his legal challenges will be effective. "I think we have a shot," he says." The Supreme Court may hear it."
But stopping the project - or even making it voluntary - won't be easy. "There's a lot of money to be made off of these things," Whitehead notes. In Texas, AT&T is behind the RFID chips in question. "They're going to go nationwide because of corporate interest."
More Than A Religious Issue
For Hernandez, this is a religious issue. But it's absurd that it has come to that. Tracking people like packages is about the most obvious violation of privacy as could be imagined, especially when the students aren't even suspected of doing anything wrong. Just because they're children doesn't mean they lose all their rights. And besides, in the San Antonio test, even their parents don't get to opt out for them.
Beyond the egregious invasion of privacy, there are very real negative effects to this kind of over-the-top supervision. Matthew Tollin, a Harvard-trained attorney and the founder of wireLawyer, says it can stifle individuality and free expression. "Just think about the chilling effect this could have on a child’s creativity and learning if they feel like everywhere they move they are being watched," Tollin said. "It's a very real concern and very real invasion of privacy as protected by our Bill of Rights."
And it only gets worse if, as planned, the Student Locator Project gets expanded to the entire district - or further.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock.