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Texas test case: Do school IDs with locator chips violate religious freedom?

A Texas student has has sued her school district, which tried to transfer her when she refused to participate in program that introduced ID badges with locator chips.

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“If you don’t opt in, then you’re punished,” says Whitehead.

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Looking beyond this case, privacy-protection groups say they are concerned about the growing intrusion of RFID and other high-tech identification tools – including biometric palm scanners, which some schools in Maryland and elsewhere are using to help students pay for lunches more efficiently.

The use of tracking chips “desensitizes students from an early age to privacy violations," says Khaliah Barnes, a law council at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit public-interest group in Washington.

That’s one reason that Lois Kolkhorst, a Republican lawmaker in the Texas House of Representatives, has been trying for eight years to introduce bills that either ban RFID technology from schools or allow parents or students to opt out without any repercussion.

“I don’t like this technology being used with our children,” says Representative Kolkhorst. “This should be vetted publicly.”

Northside's Gonzalez tries to dispel misconceptions about what the program does.

“People may think we have personnel sitting in front of a bank of monitors looking at the whereabouts of 3,000 kids,” he says. “That’s impossible. We don’t have the staff to do that, and we don’t have a reason to do that…. If we need to find someone, we can locate them, but nobody sits there and tracks their whereabouts.”

To minimize hacking concerns, the cards are linked to a randomly assigned number – not the student’s ID number – and no sensitive information is stored with that number. And there are no card readers in bathrooms or locker rooms.

The program would also help administrators identify someone who doesn’t belong on campus, since they wouldn’t be wearing the ID lanyard. That’s why, says Gonzalez, it was important that Andrea wear an ID, even if it didn’t have the RFID chip in it.

Gonzalez notes that out of 4,000 students, only two – Andrea and one other family – have complained. For students in a public school, “the expectation of privacy is really low,” he says. 

While RFID technology in schools is still not particularly widespread, it’s growing, with a number of districts in California and Texas implementing it.

“It’s a rather sensitive topic in various school districts and communities,” says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, citing concerns about tracking.

But Mr. Stephens also notes that there are a lot of potential benefits, not only in helping locate students in an emergency but also in starting to track where violence or crimes occur in a school.

“A lot of this is about a fine balance, about the technology that is there and creating the kind of environment you want on the campus,” says Stephens.

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