November 28, 2012

Tracking chips in student IDs face challenge

A Texas school district is adopting the technology to track attendance.

The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — To 15-year-old Andrea Hernandez, the tracking microchip embedded in her student ID card is a "mark of the beast," sacrilege to her Christian faith -- not to mention how it pinpoints her location, even in the school bathroom.

click image to enlarge

Tira Starr, an 8th grader at Anson Jones Middle School, shows her ID badge as students change classes in San Antonio, Texas.

The Associated Press

But to her budget-reeling San Antonio school district, those chips carry a potential $1.7 million in funds.

Starting this fall, the fourth-largest school district in Texas is experimenting with "locator" chips in student ID badges on two of its campuses, allowing administrators to track the whereabouts of 4,200 students with GPS-like precision. Hernandez's refusal to participate isn't a twist on teenage rebellion, but has launched a debate over privacy and religion that has forged rare like-mindedness between typically opposing groups.

When Hernandez and her parents balked at the so-called SmartID, the school agreed to remove the chip but still required her to wear the badge. The family refused on religious grounds, stating in a lawsuit that even wearing the badge was tantamount to "submission of a false god."

On Wednesday, a state district judge is expected to decide whether Northside Independent School District can transfer Hernandez to a different campus.

The technology isn't new, but hasn't exactly caught on nationwide. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about a similar initiative at a California school.

The Northside school district spent roughly $261,000 to equip students at one high school and one middle school with SmartIDs.

Yet the biggest motivation was financial. In Texas, school funding is based on daily attendance. The more students seated in homeroom when the first bell rings, the more state dollars the school receives. If a student is lingering in the hallway or the library when roll is called, the marked absence hurts the school's bottom line.

But with the locator chips – the district doesn't like to call them "tracking" – a clerk in the main office can find out if a student is elsewhere on campus, and if so, include them in the attendance count.

Every student found amounts to another $30 in funding, based on the school's calculations.

Hernandez's family isn't convinced that tracking isn't a motive. Nor is a Virginia-based civil rights group, The Rutherford Institute, which took up Hernandez's cause and filed the lawsuit against the district.

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