POPLAR BLUFF, MO. — There's usually not much to report from this town of 17,000 in the foothills of southeastern Missouri. Crime is low, traffic is slow, and the locals like to point visitors to the town's namesake, a blanket of tulip poplar trees hugging the bluff of the Black River.
But 1,300 students cram the hallways of Poplar Bluff's only public high school, and superintendent Randy Winston is the first to admit that it is nearly impossible to know everybody by face let alone by name.
And yet, when he announced in late October that all students and staff must wear ID badges while on school grounds, a few of the parents - and then a slew of students - put up quite a fuss.
Some called it Orwellian, citing Big Brother and his omnipresent eye; others declared it a nuisance, saying only visitors should have to wear badges. One father even pulled his two daughters from the school in protest.
Across the country student IDs are fast becoming the norm - while far more invasive security measures have already been implemented, such as random drug testing, cameras, and metal detectors. Many experts are left wondering: Why the fuss in Poplar Bluff?
In this case, even the American Civil Liberties Union sides with the school's right to insist that students both wear and display ID badges.
"Does the school have a right to know your name?" asks Denise Leiberman, legal director of the ACLU's St. Louis branch. "Absolutely. And does it have the right to require you present it? Yeah, I think so."
Poplar Bluff may be somewhat unusual in that it is a small town that hasn't yet had to safeguard against many of the problems that America's larger metropolitan areas have long faced.
Many residents feel immune to everything from street crime to terrorist attacks. Perhaps the community is merely going through growing pains, observers note, as it struggles to come to terms with what larger towns have already accepted as "the new normal."
"We live in cautious times," says David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group in Philadelphia that advocates for civil liberties in schools. "And some safety measures are effective, and some are purely cosmetic. To me, ID badges are kind of like the beeping of trucks when they back up. How many lives has that actually saved? But now every truck of any size beeps. It's one of those things that is slapped on to give the appearance of being careful."
But Mr. Winston doesn't understand why, when surrounding communities smaller than Poplar Bluff have required ID badges without hue and cry, students and parents are so concerned about wearing what is essentially a library card. The badge includes a photo, the school year, the person's status as student or staff, and a bar code used for checking out books.
In fact, he feels the ends justify the means if the badges prevent just one student from any kind of threat or security risk. "If this keeps my kids safer, I've done my job," he says. "I see absolutely zero downside to this - no reason, no disadvantage to wearing them."
Neither do many parents across the country, it turns out.
After CNN picked up the local paper's coverage of the growing controversy, Winston began to receive e-mails and phone calls from concerned parents near and far, all of them telling him to stick to his guns on this one. (As a reminder of this support, Winston keeps a manila folder of the printed e-mails to the left of his computer monitor.)
Even the protesting students have had a difficult time articulating precisely why the ID badges bother them.
"Most everybody feels offended - I mean, it's just stupid," says Casey Newton, a junior who dons an orange badge just below her ID that says in bold black letters, "Worn under protest." A concerned mother made the laminated badges when Superintendent Winston said everybody has a right to protest.
But why is it stupid? Casey shrugs. "I just don't think it's necessary."
Like it or not, parents and students face an uphill battle if they want to reverse this new rule, says Perry Zirkel, professor of education and law at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.
"I see this as another one of the many issues where the courts increasingly give school authorities broad boundaries, and it's more a matter of does this seem to be a sensible action," Mr. Zirkel says. "I really don't think when you clear the smoke away that there's any kind of viable legal claim. Experts may not agree that this is the proper use of educational resources, but it's certainly not invasive in the scheme of things."
Yet he wonders whether the effort that goes into implementing and enforcing the new badge rule is worthwhile.
"Some mix of [safety precautions] at a moderate level will certainly improve things, but at some point school officials turn into police officers, social workers, and fathers and mothers, and it gets in the way of them achieving their basic mission," he says. "There will always be kids who if you say left will go right. And they'll forget their name badges, so what do you do? Suspend them from learning? Now you've become a law-enforcement officer rather than an educator."
But Winston has already taken this into account. He says the punishment for students who forget their badges will be minimal - a warning the first time and in-school detention thereafter - and that no one will be "suspended from learning."
Outside Poplar Bluff, support for the superintendent and the badges seems overwhelming. Most parents in the US, it would appear, rate concerns about their children's safety above worries about the erosion of their civil liberties.