Suit targets ‘locator’ chips in Texas student IDs

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.

But to her budget-reeling San Antonio school district, those chips carry a potential $1.7 million in classroom 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 a 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” because the card still indicated her participation.

A state district judge had been expected to decide Wednesday whether Northside Independent School District could transfer Hernandez to a different campus. But the family’s attorney said late Tuesday that the hearing was cancelled after the school district asked that the case be moved to federal court.

A new hearing hasn’t been set.

“How often do you see an issue where the ACLU and Christian fundamentalists come together? It’s unusual,” said Chris Steinbach, the chief of staff for a Republican state lawmaker who has filed a bill to outlaw the technology in Texas schools.

The concept 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. That same year, a suburban Houston school district began putting the chips in its student IDs, and served as the blueprint for Northside’s pilot program that began this fall.

Ronald Stephens, executive director of the nonprofit National School Safety Center, said he didn’t believe the technology to be widespread but predicted “it’ll be the next wave” in schools. The chips use radio-frequency identification (RFID) transmitters and only work on campus.

The Northside school district spent roughly $261,000 to equip students at one high school and one middle school with SmartIDs, a decision made with safety and efficiency in mind, said district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez. Imagine quickly accounting for students in the event of a lockdown, he said, or cafeteria lines moving faster as scanners instantly identify who’s picking up that lunch tray.

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. In that way, those moving red dots that represent students on the clerk’s computer screen are like finding change in the couch cushions.

Gonzalez said the district has estimated another $1.7 million in funding if the program delivers on expectations, somewhat lessening the sting of losing $61.5 million after state lawmakers cut public school funding in Texas by nearly $5 billion last year.

“Nobody is sitting at a bank of monitors looking for the whereabouts of 3,000 students,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t have the personnel for it, nor do we have the need to do that. But when I need to find (a student), I can enter his random number and I can find him somewhere as a red dot on that computer screen. `Oh, there he is, in Science Room 22’ or whatever. So we can locate students, but it’s not about tracking them.”

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

The organization declined to make the Hernandez family available for an interview Tuesday, before the Wednesday court hearing had been cancelled.

John Whitehead, the organization’s founder, believes the religious component of the lawsuit makes it stronger than if it only objected on grounds of privacy. The lawsuit cites scriptures in the book of Revelation, stating that “acceptance of a certain code … from a secular ruling authority” is a form of idolatry.

Wearing the badge, the family argues, takes it a step further.

“It starts with that religious concern,” Whitehead said. “There is a large mark of Evangelicals that believe in the `mark of the beast.’ “

Republican state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst has filed bills since 2005 to ban the chips in Texas public schools. Steinbach, her chief of staff, is hopeful the bill will now get more traction with the attention surrounding Hernandez’s case.

Yet despite the lawsuit, proposed legislation and concern from outside groups, there are no signs of a groundswell of opposition in San Antonio from parents whose children have the chips in their campus IDs.

Gonzalez said that of the 4,200 students, the Hernandez family is the only one who has asked out of the program.

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