Big Brother? School District Tracks Kids with RFID

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SAN ANTONIO -- One of the largest school districts in the country has begun to use radio frequency tracking technology, or RFID, with some of its students.

Administrators at Northside Independent School District say it's a great way to keep kids safe. But some parents say it's an invasion of children's privacy and violates their religious beliefs.

Mark of the Beast?

Andrea Hernandez's day starts with her backpack, sweatshirt, and student ID. But the John Jay High School sophomore isn't using her school's new RFID badge. She's using last year's card.

Hernandez said the new ID violates her religious beliefs. She believes it conditions students to one day accept what the Bible's book of Revelation calls the "mark of the beast."

John Jay High School requires the card for its activities like buying lunch and checking out a library book.

"This is not the great economy like the U.S. economy or the economy of Texas," Hernandez said. "It's the economy of John Jay High School, but you're still not allowed to participate in it unless you have this thing."

But Northside says the badges help to keep kids safe and, with 100,000 students in mega-schools around the city, that's a tall order.

This fall Northside joined a handful of districts that use what's called Radio Frequency Identification Technology, or RFID for short. Northside is piloting the program at its Anson Jones Middle School and John Jay High School.

Big Brother Watching?

Students must wear badges on lanyards around their necks. The tags contain tiny batteries that emit radio waves. RFID scanners embedded in the ceiling then "read" the badges at various sites around the school and identify students' locations.

Northside spokesman Pascual Gonzalez said the new system will help schools keep track of students wherever they may be.

"It's not just knowing a schedule for a student, which may or may not hold true for that day," Gonzalez told CBN News. "It's actually knowing physically where that child is."

Attendance clerks at John Jay and Anson Jones can now identify a student's location in the moment or earlier in the day. Many parents support the system, saying it gives them peace of of mind.

"As a parent, I want to know where my son is because I'm holding them accountable for his well-being," Madelene Garza said.

But other parents disagree.

"I don't like the idea of them chipping the kids," Bobby Scott, who has three children in the district, said.

Leticia Adams, another parent, agreed with Scott.

"I believe it does invade our children's privacy and civil liberties and the fact that there's no provision to opt out," she said.

Privacy vs. Safety

Privacy organizations around the country are backing these parents.

"The ultimate concern is that we don't want to turn into a surveillance society," said Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the American Civil Liberty Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

"In our culture and our legal traditions, the government doesn't watch you unless it has a particular reason to suspect that you are involved in wrongdoing," he said.

"This type of technology implicates the freedom of speech, the right to freely associate and religious freedoms," Khaliah Barnes, the open government counsel with the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center explained.

"Imagine for example a student being dissuaded from attending a political interest group because she fears that the tracking technology will alert the principal or other administrators where her political affiliations lie," Barnes said.

But the school district says there's no invasion of privacy and that civil liberty organizations don't understand safety concerns.

"We reject their argument," Gonzalez said. "They don't walk in our shoes. They are not the principal or the teacher in one of these mega-schools charged with the safety of these children."

"We're not sitting here tracking kids all day long," Anson Jones Principal Wendy Reyes said. "We don't have time to do that."

No Opt-Outs

The district does not have an opt-out policy, which may discourage dissenters from speaking out. Gonzalez said when the program is fully operational later this month the badges will be mandatory.

"It will be a requirement of that school for students to wear their lanyards and their ID card," he said. "If they refuse, then perhaps that's not the school for them."

After factoring in initial costs, Northside expects to earn an extra $1.5 million this year from the state all because it's able to locate and count extra students.

Manufacturer Michael Wade owns the tech firm Wade Garcia, which supplies Northside and two other Texas school districts with the RFID badges.

He told CBN News that the business is growing. By the year's end Wade expects to supply at least 10 districts.

He said the technology makes sense for schools concerned about both safety and budget.

"There's this misconception that RFID is tracking something. We're not," he said. "It's a real-time location system. No one's sitting at the computer tracking anyone."

But Hernandez is not convinced. She said she's in the fight for the long haul.

Right now her father is going through a grievance process with the district, hoping it will allow his daughter to opt-out.

"Northside can throw whatever they want at me, but in the end it doesn't really matter because life is bigger than just Northside," Hernandez said. "It's bigger than just John Jay High School. But this program is bigger than what they're making it out to be."

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells enjoys reporting on a variety of issues for CBN News. Some of her recent stories have focused on religious liberties, technology, AIDS, overseas missions, domestic trafficking, and politics.  Follow Heather on Twitter @SellsHeather and "like" her at Facebook.com/HeatherSellsCBNNews.