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Andrea Hernandez

No more RFID for Northside ISD

Nortside ISD in San Antonio has quit using RFID trackers in student IDs to keep tabs on them, and has embraced an alternate technological solution to the problem of ensuring an accurate headcount instead.

Northside Independent School District spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told me that the microchip-ID program turned out not to be worth the trouble. Its main goal was to increase attendance by allowing staff to locate students who were on campus but didn’t show up for roll call. That was supposed to lead to increased revenue. But attendance at the two schools in question—a middle school and a high school—barely budged in the year that the policy was in place. And school staff found themselves wasting a lot of time trying to physically track down the missing students based on their RFID locators.

Andrea Hernandez, the student whose family unsuccessfully sued the district on religious grounds and referred to the IDs as “the mark of the beast,” is reportedly thrilled by the decision. She had ended up transferring to another school to avoid the IDs.

But the backlash and the lawsuit weren’t the deciding factors, Gonzalez told me. “While [privacy groups] are extolling the fact that they won, the fact is that that was a very minor part of our conversation, because the federal court and the court of appeals both upheld Northside’s position on that. We were on solid ground.”

Indeed, the district never acknowledged that the chips posed legitimate privacy concerns, adhering all along to the reasoning that Gonzalez expressed to me when I first talked to him about this last fall: “By virtue of the fact that you are a student at school, there is no privacy.” No doubt other schools will echo that line when they adopt RFID or similar technologies in the years to come, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a high court rule on a similar case at some point in the future. Gonzalez is right that students on a campus have less expectation of privacy than adults, but “no privacy” seems a little extreme. The question of how much offline tracking is too much is also likely to arise in workplaces as employers use RFID tags to bust workers for, say, spending too much time in the bathroom.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez told me Northside plans to capture the safety and security benefits of RFID chips through other technological means. “We’re very confident we can still maintain a safe and secure school because of the 200 cameras that are installed at John Jay High School and the 100 that are installed at Jones Middle School. Plus we are upgrading those surveillance systems to high-definition and more sophisticated cameras. So there will be a surveillance-camera umbrella around both schools.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The Lege took a look at restricting RFID use by school districts to track students in this manner, but the bill never made it to the House floor. The outcome here doesn’t mean they won’t try again, however. I thought Northside had a legitimate reason for doing what they did and wasn’t particularly bothered by it, so I have no strong feelings about this new solution one way or the other. Both the student plaintiff and her legal squad seem happy with this, so I’ll leave it to you to decide if this is “better” from a privacy perspective or not.

Student RFID bill gets House hearing

We knew this day would come.

Last fall, San Antonio’s Northside ISD began issuing radio-frequency identification (RFID) enhanced student IDs to help with its attendance records. Austin began a small opt-in RFID program last fall, and in 2010, two Houston-area districts began tracking kids with RFID. The trend has gotten national attention.

Rep. Lois Kolkhorst (R-Brenham) wants to end the practice. On Tuesday, her bill outlawing mandatory RFID student tracking got its day before the House Public Education Committee. Like the most outspoken critics of RFID tracking—whose worries range from civil liberties to religious convictions—her co-authors on the bill are an unlikely bunch, from Fort Worth Democrat Lon Burnam to freshman Bedford Republican Jonathan Stickland.

The bill would let school districts use RFID tracking, but would protect any student who wanted to opt out. Big Brother would have to ask permission to watch if you’re cutting class.

Northside ISD’s insistence that students participate is the subject of a federal lawsuit, brought by Andrea Hernandez, a student told she had to wear the RFID badge at John Jay High School.

[…]

[Badge-maker Michael] Wade said the devices don’t really track students, but create “a cookie trail” of the last place the students were when a scanner picked up their device. “After awhile they would know if someone was using this tag if it was in the library when they should be in the gym,” Wade said.

School districts that use the devices say they’re useful safety measures, particularly in emergencies, and can help lead to higher attendance counts—which translates to more funding from the state.

Still, support for outlawing RFID requirements is wide-ranging—from, for instance, the American Civil Liberties Unions and the conservative Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, which represents Hernandez in the suit against Northside.

See here, here, and here for the background. Northside ISD won the suit in district court; a motion for an injunction pending appeal was rejected as well. The fervor around this pretty much befuddles me. I get that people feel strongly about this, but it’s one of those things that just doesn’t move me. The fact that the Hernandez’s beliefs are objectively wrong is a side issue that never gets discussed in the mainstream accounts of the story. Anyway, if this comes to a vote in the House I will expect it to pass. In the grand scheme of things, it really isn’t that big a deal.

Student RFID lawsuit rejected

A win for the school district in federal court.

A federal judge Tuesday ruled that Northside Independent School District can transfer a student from her magnet school for refusing to wear her student ID badge to protest a new electronic tracking system.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia rejected a lawsuit brought by Andrea Hernandez, 15, through her father, Steve Hernandez, backed by lawyers provided by the Rutherford Institute.

The lawsuit had sought an injunction so she could stay in Jay High School’s magnet school for science and engineering without having to wear the identification badge.

The badges contain a chip used to track students’ on-campus whereabouts but Northside ISD officials had offered to let her wear it without the chip.

Andrea refused, saying it violated her constitutional rights and religious beliefs, and after Northside officials reassigned her to Taft High School, her regular neighborhood school, the family filed suit in November.

“Today’s court ruling affirms NISD’s position that we did make reasonable accommodation” to Andrea’s religious concerns, the district said in an emailed statement. “The family now has the choice to accept the accommodation and stay at the magnet program, or return to her home campus” later this month.

[…]

Administrators use [RFID] mainly to identify students who are in the building but missed morning roll call, although the system also can locate individual students any time of day. It keeps an electronic history of each badge, so operators can retrace a student’s general movements. In a 25-page ruling, Garcia said the five claims of violations of federal and state civil liberties and religious laws that the lawsuit asserted failed to meet requirements to get the injunction.

The issue of school safety trumps some of the claims, he wrote, and cited examples from Northside Superintendent Brian Woods’ testimony that the RFID program has allowed educators to quickly find students during emergencies.

“In today’s climate, one would be hard pressed to argue that the safety and security of the children and educators in our public school system is not a compelling governmental interest,” Garcia wrote. “One could envision many different methods of ensuring safety and security in schools, and the requirement that high school students carry a uniform ID badge issued for those attending classes on campus is clearly one of the least restrictive means available.”

See background here and here, and via Wired you can see the court’s opinion here. The Rutherford Institute, which represented Andrea Hernandez, has said that it would support an appeal to the Fifth Circuit. I continue to not understand the fuss, given that NISD has allowed her to remove the RFID chip from her ID card. Requiring high school students to carry and display an ID card seems to me to be a pretty basic security measure. We’ll see what if anything happens from in the courts and the Legislature.

Student RFID case in federal court

Good luck sorting it all out, Your Honor.

Because she has a religious objection to Northside Independent School District’s new student tracking system, Andrea Hernandez and her father testified in federal court Monday, she should not be transferred to another school for refusing to carry a student I.D. badge.

Hernandez, 15, a sophomore in a science and engineering magnet program at John Jay High School, and her father, Steven Hernandez, each testified that they believe the tracking system — which uses radio frequency identification tags inserted in student badges — is a sign of submission to the Antichrist as described in the Bible’s Book of Revelation.

Northside began trying out the RFID technology at two schools this fall. It allows an attendance monitor to locate students at specific areas on campus in real time.

It’s a way to maximize state funding, which is partly based on daily attendance, to cope with budget cuts, Northside Superintendent Brian Woods told U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia. The system allows a more accurate count of which students are at school and could help locate individuals quickly in case of emergencies, Woods said.

[…]

Steven Hernandez teared up on the stand after reading a passage from the Bible and explaining how deeply he holds his faith on the issue. He said supporting the program “would compromise our salvation for NISD to make some money.”

Andrea told the judge that her educational goals would be harmed if she goes to Taft because she wouldn’t be able to take certain classes in pursuit of a career as an interface web designer. Garcia repeatedly asked Andrea and her father why she could not wear the badge with the chip removed. That would be “falling in line with the rest and showing support for the program,” Steven Hernandez testified.

After the hearing, when asked who he thought was assuming the role of the Antichrist, Steven Hernandez replied, “In this case, Northside is the Antichrist.”

Garcia said he would decide this week on Andrea’s request for a permanent injunction to keep her at Jay.

I can’t wait to see what he decides. See here and here for more.

The anti-student RFID movement has already begun

When I wrote about the battle over student RFID, I said it was just a matter of time before the Lege intervened. Turns out I was behind the curve on this.

Since first hearing about the use of radio frequency technology to track public school students in 2004, state Rep. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, has filed a bill during every subsequent legislative session to prohibit the technology’s usage. Now, with civil liberties proponents supporting one San Antonio student’s right to refuse the technology, her proposal might get wider attention.

Chris Steinbach, Kolkhorst’s chief of staff, said he thinks a court case — in which the San Antonio student is arguing that her school’s ID card pilot program violates her civil rights — might spark the necessary attention to move the bill forward. A hearing on that case was scheduled for Wednesday morning in a state district court, but it was removed to federal court.

“The stars are aligning with people on the left and right with people who are concerned about parental rights and privacy,” Steinbach said.

[…]

[Rep. Kolkhorst] has pre-filed two bills on the identification technology. HB 102 would bar school districts from using the radio tags. HB 101, on the other hand, would allow districts to only use the cards if their school boards approve them — and only if students who refuse the ID cards are given an “alternative method of identification” and not penalized for their refusal.

“There’s the easy way and the hard way,” Steinbach said. “She’s just going to gauge the temperature of the Legislature.”

I continue to be baffled by the vehemence some people feel about this. I just don’t see it as that big a deal. Of course, I don’t have non-standard religious beliefs, and as I noted in the previous post, we don’t generally give much credence to the idea of “freedom” for students in other contexts. Having said that, I have no objections to HB101, which seems like a reasonable approach to the issue. Surely if you believe in local control, it’s preferable to the blanket ban that HB102 would mandate. We’ll see what the Lege prefers.

Student RFID

I have three things to say about this.

A Texas high school student is being suspended for refusing to wear a student ID card implanted with a radio-frequency identification chip.

Northside Independent School District in San Antonio began issuing the RFID-chip-laden student-body cards when the semester began in the fall. The ID badge has a bar code associated with a student’s Social Security number, and the RFID chip monitors pupils’ movements on campus, from when they arrive until when they leave.

Radio-frequency identification devices are a daily part of the electronic age — found in passports, and library and payment cards. Eventually they’re expected to replace bar-code labels on consumer goods. Now schools across the nation are slowly adopting them as well.

The suspended student, sophomore Andrea Hernandez, was notified by the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio that she won’t be able to continue attending John Jay High School unless she wears the badge around her neck, which she has been refusing to do. The district said the girl, who objects on privacy and religious grounds, beginning Monday would have to attend another high school in the district that does not yet employ the RFID tags.

The Rutherford Institute said it would go to court and try to nullify the district’s decision. The institute said that the district’s stated purpose for the program — to enhance their coffers — is “fundamentally disturbing.”

“There is something fundamentally disturbing about this school district’s insistence on steamrolling students into complying with programs that have nothing whatsoever to do with academic priorities and everything to do with fattening school coffers,” said John Whitehead, the institute’s president.

Like most state-financed schools, the district’s budget is tied to average daily attendance. If a student is not in his seat during morning roll call, the district doesn’t receive daily funding for that pupil because the school has no way of knowing for sure if the student is there.

But with the RFID tracking, students not at their desk but tracked on campus are counted as being in school that day, and the district receives its daily allotment for that student.

1. School districts have a strong incentive to ensure that their weighted average daily attendance (WADA) figures are as high as possible because that’s how their funding is determined. This is the system that the Legislature has set up. I’m not an expert in these matters so I can’t say whether this is the best way to dole out funds to schools and school districts or not, but it’s what we’ve got whether you like it or not, and especially in the current climate of budget cuts and funding levels being frozen since 2006, I hardly see how you can blame NISD for trying to ensure it’s getting all the resources it’s owed. I strongly object to the Rutherford Institute’s classification of this as NISD “enhancing its coffers”, as if there’s a CEO behind the scenes seeking to maximize his profits. The money NISD would lose out on for undercounting their attendance hurts their students; getting all the resources they are owed helps them. One can make the case that they’re simply fulfilling their fiduciary responsibility to local taxpayers, since funds they forfeit by not getting an accurate count of their WADA may need to be recouped by an increase in property taxes. If you don’t like the system, blame the Legislature for it, as only they can change it. NISD is just playing by the rules as they are written.

2. Attacking NISD’s policy on privacy grounds seems like a losing strategy to me, since it’s fairly well established that students have fewer rights than adults and that school administrators have a lot of leeway in dealing with students. If you find the idea of a school tracking the whereabouts of its students outrageous, all I can say is are you sure your boss isn’t keeping tabs on where you are right now? We’re sufficiently far down this rabbit hole that the only way we’ll be able to find our way back out is if someone has been tracking our movements. Like it or not, I don’t see how what NISD is doing is out of bounds. There’s a much bigger conversation that we need to have about all this, but the outcome of this case one way or the other isn’t going to have any effect on that.

3. Objecting to NISD’s policy on religious grounds, however, may be the golden ticket. I don’t know how that may play out in the courts, but I’ll bet that this issue rises to the point where some enterprising GOP member of the Legislature takes it up. I can already see the bill, and the press conference announcing the bill, from here. It’s just a matter of time.

So that’s where we stand now. A judge temporarily blocked Hernandez’s suspension on Wednesday pending further hearings this week, so stay tuned. For more on this story, see here or just google “Andrea Hernandez RFID”. For a typically thoughtful analysis from a religious perspective, read The Slacktivist.