In the battle between school districts’ squeezed budgets and your child’s civil rights, including religious freedom and privacy, the only winners are the corporations that sell school districts the expensive, invasive technology. They may also be the sole non-combatants in lawsuits that are starting to reach the courts. On Wednesday, November 28, a motion filed by a super-sized Texas school district fighting the refusal of a lone high school student to submit to its surveillance technology may take the issue into the federal court system. More legal actions are being planned in other states where parents and students believe their school district’s high-tech security or cost-saving measures are infringing on their rights.
Surveillance cameras, biometric palm readers, RFID chips, GPS tracking scanners
Surveillance cameras, biometric palm readers, RFID chips, GPS tracking scanners. Each of these are employed by public schools, grades K through 12, in California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland and more to track students in an effort to improve attendance.
San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District (NISD), which bills itself as “San Antonio’s Premier School District”, consists of 112 schools and almost 100,000 students. The “Student Locator Project” is a pilot program for two of the schools with the lowest attendance records, John Jay High School and Anson Jones Middle School. It requires all students to wear a personal tracking device. Using radio frequency identification technology (RFID) embedded in student identification cards means the school can track the exact location of every student on the school grounds, excluding bathrooms. According to the district’s website, this is in addition to the recent “massive technology project that installed digital cameras in all high schools and middle schools” and is currently being installed in the 71 elementary schools.
That seems like a lot of security. So, why has the district invested over a quarter of a million dollars more in an RFID pilot program? The district’s FAQ page on the Student Locator Project says it may yield up to “$2 million in additional revenues”. Like many school systems, NISD’s funding is attendance-based rather than enrollment-based. Regardless of the number of students enrolled at the school, if students are absent due to illness or cutting, the district loses revenue.
Constitutional attorney and founder of the Rutherford Institute, John W. Whitehead, says “it’s a money-making venture. It’s all based on money.” There is money to be made by the “mega-corporations” who pitch the school boards and money to be made by the school districts who see missing students as missing dollars. Whitehead notes that there are already “290 surveillance cameras” watching students in the Northside district. In 2006, Whitehead served on a “national committee with the Constitution Project” (a non-profit, bi-partisan think tank addressing serious constitutional and legal questions) studying the effectiveness of surveillance cameras. His, and their, conclusions? “They don’t work; they don’t prevent crime; they record it.”
Hernandez told school officials she refused to wear the RFID embedded tag because she equates it with the mark of the devil.
Andrea Hernandez, a sophomore at John Jay High School’s Science and Engineering Academy, and her family are religious Christians. Hernandez told school officials she refused to wear the RFID embedded tag because she equates it with the mark of the devil, based on certain Scriptures in the book of Revelation. NISD officials warned her she would be unable to access the school’s library or cafeteria, or even vote for Homecoming King and Queen, which seems silly in the face of Hernandez’s beliefs. She didn’t relent. The district offered to remove her chip as long as she wore the tags and appeared to participate. She refused. So the district sent a letter to her father, Steve Hernandez, which said her refusal to wear the embedded ID meant she would be withdrawn from the highly competitive magnet school program by November 26.
Whitehead represents Hernandez in her efforts to stay at the magnet school. On November 21, he won a temporary restraining order preventing the school district from removing Hernandez from the science and engineering program. He believes there are three constitutional amendments getting trampled by NISD in this case, the 1st, the 4th and the 14th. The 1st amendment guarantees include freedom of religion and speech. The 4th amendment deals with privacy issues; it’s the one that protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, as well as the need to establish probable cause to get a warrant. The 14th amendment includes a procedural due process clause, which the Supreme Court interpreted to include the necessity of a hearing before a student may be expelled from public school.
Whitehead said he understands that the Hernandez family’s action has “brought the issue to the forefront” and inspired “quite a few people” in San Antonio to object to their children wearing the tags. One of the goals of the suit is to provide “those who object to it based on religion, conscience or just basic privacy rights” to opt-out of the program, something the district doesn’t permit now.
While 81 percent of parents of “online teens” are concerned with advertisers’ financial incentives and access into their child’s activities online, according to the November 20, 2012 study by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, how many parents are aware of the daily high-tech intrusions by their public schools, into the non-academic actions of students as young as kindergartners?
What do the schools gain? Shorter lunch lines.
Some schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, Maryland and Florida now identify students, even elementary school students, with palm scanners using near-infrared light just to pay for lunch. Infrared palm scans show a vein pattern that is as unique as a fingertip pattern and can be matched instantly to a record of your palm stored in a central computer. What do the schools gain by using these ink-free fingerprint-like scans? Shorter lunch lines.
However, in Carroll County, Maryland, elementary students in a pilot program were scanned before the school notified the parents they could opt-out. Some parents protested and, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun, 20 percent of the parents have now opted-out. Yet, Carroll County is still planning to roll-out the program into the rest of the 43 schools in their district. Total cost for software and hardware to the district? $300 thousand plus maintenance contracts with PalmSecure, a product of the only company to manufacture the scanners to date, Fujitsu.
Other companies in the student tracking business include Dallas, Texas-based AimTruancy Solutions and Austin, Texas-based Radiant RFID . Aim Truancy’s controversial approach to solving serious truancy cases is to force the student to carry a mandatory GPS tracker for six weeks and check in frequently each day with a mentor or coach…or “parole officer.” AimTruancy claims stellar results, not just in improved attendance numbers but in the quality of students’ lives “on the path to productive citizenship.” However, the results chart displays their main sales point, “The AimTruancy program is a net revenue generator for schools.” One of their early clients was the San Antonio Independent School District. Radiant RFID began in 2004 tracking packages and now runs a program for schools promoted with the tagline, “Our Student Accountability Solution keeps track of your most important assets.”
The hubris displayed by school district’s assurances that the data is safe is astonishing.
The hubris displayed by school district’s assurances that the data is safe is astonishing. DCist.com reported several Washington D.C. public schools were robbed over the Thanksgiving holiday, windows smashed and more than 10 computers stolen. WMCTV, a Memphis, Tennessee station, reported $58 thousand of computers were stolen from four public schools over the course of the February 2012 holiday. Public schools are not high-security institutions and even those are subject to human error and opportunistic theft. On November 13, NASA headquarters informed their employees that a unencrypted laptop and NASA documents were stolen from an employee’s car on October 31, 2012. The information on the laptop could be accessible to unauthorized individuals and personal data of a “large number” of NASA employees and contractors might have been compromised.
Whitehead believes the pace of technology is outstripping most people’s ability to “understand the ramifications”, comparing our society to “the movie Minority Report which is supposedly taking place in 2050; but everything in that movie has come to pass, now.”
Whitehead is not exaggerating. The Tom Cruise movie Minority Report (2002) was about a government program, Precrime, that arrests and convicts citizens for crimes they are about to commit. The technology for that is coming FAST, or as Homeland Security calls it, Future Attribute Screening Technology, to “rapidly identify suspicious behavior indicators,” which was green-lighted last year for further development.
To learn more abut how to protect yourself and your family online and off, visit the website for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC.org). EPIC is a non-profit research center in Washington, D.C. that focuses “public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues.” Their website is a terrific clearinghouse and resource about the potential dangers of technology to privacy. To learn more about student privacy issues and children’s online privacy issues, click the links.