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Texas Tracks Students with Technology

Update: The hearing scheduled for Nov. 28 on Andrea Hernandez’s request to stay at John Jay High School was cancelled, after Northside ISD filed a motion to move the case from state to federal court. The district issued the following statement: “Since the Jay High School student and her father are alleging a violation of the student's federal constitutional rights, Northside ISD asked that the case be heard in federal court. The case scheduled to be heard today in State court has been canceled and now will rest with a Federal judge to make a ruling. Neither a judge nor a date for a federal hearing has been set.”

At Northside ISD in San Antonio, Texas, parents and civil rights activists are concerned over students’ privacy under a new “Student Locator Project,” which involves using “smart” ID cards to track students while on school property for attendance purposes. These IDs use radio frequency identification (RFID) chips to broadcast a radio signal, allowing school officials to know students’ precise location on campus at all times.

In Texas, a district’s state funding is dependent on school attendance. If a student is not in class at the time attendance is taken, the district will not receive daily funding for this student. With the tags, a student who is on campus is counted as being in school, and the district receives funding accordingly.

The IDs are being piloted in John Jay High School (a magnet school) and Anson Mount Middle School, both of which have low attendance rates, and 200 and 90 security cameras in place, respectively. The district invested $261,000 in the pilot program, and expects a $2 million return from the state, according to its website. The IDs may eventually be used in all 112 Northside schools, serving nearly 100,000 students.

“There may be a misconception out there with the general public that we have staff sitting in front of a bank of computers watching all these dots move around the school—that is so far from the truth,” says Pascual Gonzalez, a district spokesman. “This is a locator technology, not a tracking technology. When we need to find a student, we enter their randomly assigned number, which is meaningless to the outside world, and can pull up the red dot to find where they are in the building.” This can also help in emergencies, to find who is still in the building, he adds.

Northside isn’t the first district with such a system: The Spring ISD in Houston began using RFID tags to monitor student attendance in 2004, according to its website, and schools in California, Florida, and New York have similar systems. About two dozen health and privacy advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, signed an August petition against RFID technology in schools, noting among other claims that the technology was originally developed for monitoring livestock. However, the American Association of School Administrators believes RFID is a small but growing trend that will become typical in a decade.

“The main purpose [of the RIFD tags] is to be able to track attendance in a very easy and convenient way,” says Daniel Domenech, AASA’s executive director. “It’s another technology innovation that the culture isn’t totally accepting of yet, but in a matter of time, it’s going to become universal.”

Domenech compares Big Brother concerns over the tags to issues some parents formerly had with school security cameras, which are now commonplace. He recommends administrators communicate with parents and the community before implementing a program like this.

Student Pushback

At the start of the school year in the Northside district, John Jay High School sophomore Andrea Hernandez refused to wear her new ID for both privacy and religious reasons. Now, she may face suspension. “The RFID chips were not put in to protect students,” says John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated, who is representing Hernandez in a lawsuit against the school. “They are a tracking device to make money for schools.”

As an evangelical Christian, Hernandez and her family believe the ID signifies the mark of the beast warning in the Bible, Revelation 13: 16-18, according to Whitehead. Before the suspension, Hernandez tried to pass out a pamphlet at school raising concerns about the IDs, but was denied by administrators, he adds. Last week, a judge ruled that this violated Hernandez’s rights of religion and free speech, and granted a temporary restraining order stopping the suspension. A hearing was scheduled for today, Nov. 28.

Students who refuse to wear their IDs are not allowed to access the library, cafeteria, or other school services, Whitehead says. Hernandez was not allowed to vote for homecoming king and queen with her former student ID. Administrators offered to take the tracking chip out of her tag, but insisted she still wear it around her neck. When she objected, she was told she would have to attend another high school in the district that does not yet use the tags.

“We had no choice—after two months of attempting to get the student to comply with the rules, we had to issue a reassignment letter, saying that her acceptance to the school has been reevaluated,” Gonzalez says. "The Jay magnet school is an application school. She applied and got in, and part of the process is to accept the rules of the school."

Biometric Scanners

Another growing school privacy concern is the increasing implementation of biometric scanner systems in school cafeterias. These scanners use infrared technology to examine a few points on a student’s hand and convert them into a numeric algorithm that is stored in a computer, according to Karen Sarno, supervisor of food services at Carroll County Public Schools in Baltimore, Md., which began implementing the system this school year. They are used in 50 school systems nationwide for quick access to student accounts in cafeteria lines. Though officials say there is no way to store a handprint in the system, some parents fear their children’s fingerprints or other identifying information may be accessed by a source outside the school in the future, Sarno says. Some also believe the scanners will make it harder for young children to recognize privacy threats outside of school, and easily submit to fingerprinting or giving information to unsafe sources, she adds.

In recent months, the Rutherford Institute has seen an increase in privacy issue cases regarding these scanners from across the nation, Whitehead says. “The overarching issue is what this teaches kids—if you’ve got surveillance cameras and chips following you everywhere, that teaches you to live in a surveillance state, even out of school. Do we really want that?”

However, Gonzalez says it is important to keep the issue of smart technology in perspective: At Northside ISD, “there are 4,200 kids in this pilot, and only one student and family who objects,” he says.