In San Antonio, Texas, high school sophomore Andrea Hernandez has been granted permission by a federal district court judge to continue attending school, despite her refusal to wear a student-tracking ID badge that continually monitors the whereabouts of every pupil on campus. Hernandez and her father filed a lawsuit after John Jay High School principal Robert Harris threatened Andrea with expulsion for refusing to wear the badge. He also stopped her from petitioning her fellow students against wearing one. The judge, who issued a restraining order on both counts, ruled Harris’s actions were a violation of Hernandez’s rights to freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. Hernandez will also receive compensation, the amount of which will be determined during a trial, according to court documents.
Beginning October 1, students at John Jay High School, as well as Anson Jones Middle School, have been required to attend school wearing photo-ID cards equipped with radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips that track every pupil’s location. Educators insist that such a program is necessary to stem rampant truancy devastating school funding. District spokesman Pasqual Gonzalez contends the district could gain $2 million in additional state funding by improving attendance. If the program is deemed successful, the “Student Locator Project” will be implemented in 112 schools in all, affecting nearly 100,000 students.
Hernandez, who is religious, wants no part of it. She insists that constant RFID monitoring is satanic, labeling the badge as the “mark of the beast,” in reference to one of the interpretations of Christian biblical prophecy outlined in the Book of Revelations.
Her resistance, as well as that of other students, has reportedly been met with pressure from instructors, along with bans preventing those students from participating in certain school functions. Students also reported being refused entry into common school areas, such as the library and the cafeteria.
Hernandez faced another consequence as well. “About two weeks ago when I went to cast my vote for homecoming king and queen, I had a teacher tell me I would not be allowed to vote because I did not have the proper voter ID,” Hernandez said during an interview with World Net Daily. “I had my old student ID card which they originally told us would be good for the entire four years we were in school. He said I needed the new ID with the chip in order to vote.”
Deputy Superintendent Ray Galindo emphasized the new requirement in a letter sent to the family. “We are simply asking your daughter to wear an ID badge as every other student and adult on the Jay campus is asked to do,” it read. Yet he added threats to the message. “I urge you to accept this solution so that your child’s instructional program will not be affected. As we discussed, there will be consequences for refusal to wear an ID card as we begin to move forward with full implementation.”
Andrea’s father, Steve, wasn’t buying it. “He told me in a meeting that if my daughter would proudly wear her student ID card around her neck so everyone could see, he would be able to quietly remove her chip from her student ID card,” he revealed. “He went on to say as part of the accommodation my daughter and I would have to agree to stop criticizing the program and publicly support…it. I told him that was unacceptable because it would imply an endorsement of the district’s policy and my daughter and I should not have to give up our constitutional rights to speak out against a program that we feel is wrong.”
The program is also redundant. The two schools have a total of 290 surveillance cameras, yet apparently officials believe even that level of monitoring is insufficient to keep track of school attendance. Thus, a follow-up letter informed Hernandez she would be expelled on November 26.
Enter the Rutherford Institute, which aided the Hernandez family with their suit. Their attorneys filed a petition for a temporary restraining order, as well as immediate injunctive and declaratory relief, alleging that the school’s actions violate Andrea’s rights under Texas’ Religious Freedom Act, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
After the judge granted the restraining order, John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute, was pleased, albeit with reservations. “The court’s willingness to grant a temporary restraining order is a good first step, but there is still a long way to go–not just in this case, but dealing with the mindset, in general, that everyone needs to be monitored and controlled,” he said in statement.
There is a far longer way to go than most Americans realize. Despite the existence of a law known as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, requiring websites to get parental consent before gathering information about users under the age of 13, monitoring students in school is seemingly exempt from the statute. Thus, “Tag and Track” RFID systems have been sold to school systems across the country by a variety of vendors, including AIM Truancy Solutions, ID Card Group and DataCard. Moreover, the Houston, TX, school district has been using RFID chips to monitor students on 13 campuses since 2004. Schools have also embraced GPS tracking software in computers, and closed-circuit television system (CCTV) video camera systems.
And Texas isn’t alone. The AIM Truancy Solutions’ GPS tracking program has also been adopted in Baltimore, MD, and is now being tested by the Anaheim, CA Union High School District, where 75 seventh- and eighth-graders with four or more unexcused absences have “volunteered” to be tracked, in order to avoid prosecution, or a potential stint in a juvenile hall.
Furthermore, despite the contentions of school officials, monitoring is about much more than attendance. The San Antonio school system received a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to install a CCTV system in school cafeterias, and embed bar codes on food trays, to monitor children’s eating habits as a means of preventing childhood obesity. “We’re going to snap a picture of the food tray at the cashier and we will know what has been served,” said Dr. Roberto Trevino of the San Antonio-based Social and Health Research Center.
Then there is abuse. In 2003, parents of students at the Livingston Middle School in Overton County, TN, filed a federal lawsuit alleging school administrators illegally recorded 10- to 14-year-old girls undressing for basketball practice in nearby changing areas. Five years later, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a school may not install security cameras inside locker rooms, where students have an expectation of privacy. In 2010, Blake Robbins, a Harriton High School sophomore in Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion School District, reported that a school official confronted him for engaging in “improper behavior”–at his home! As the story unfolded, it was revealed that the laptops the school issued to high-school students came equipped with special software that enabled school administrators to spy on students and their families. Officials claimed it was necessary to prevent the computers from being stolen–yet they also admitted parents and students were never told about the “remote access” software.
In San Antonio, Heather Fazio, executive director of Texans for Accountable Government, contends the district has not been willing to take steps to listen to parental concerns over the RFID chips. “The school board refuses to put it on the agenda or hold a forum where the matter can be debated publicly,” she said.
Nonetheless, some parents were supportive of the plan. ”You never know when a disaster is going to happen and to know where your child is at least you have that card to know where your kid’s at all times,” Michelle Esquivel told FOX 29. ”I’m always worried about my daughter being at school,” said Ernest Castro.
A hearing on the preliminary injunction is scheduled for this week. For now, Hernandez remains at John Jay. Rutherford Institute president Whitehead illuminated the stakes. “Regimes in the past have always started with the schools, where they develop a compliant citizenry. These ‘Student Locator’ programs are ultimately aimed at getting students used to living in a total surveillance state where there will be no privacy, and wherever you go and whatever you text or email will be watched by the government.”
It’s far worse than that. There is a paradigm shift occurring in America, spearheaded by a couple of generations so inured to modern technology, they have never known anything resembling personal privacy. There was a time, a few short years ago, where the idea of surveilling children at all times would have been considered an outrage by an overwhelming majority of Americans. Yet in this case, district spokesman Gonzalez characterized Steven Hernandez as the the “lone protester” regarding the usurpation of his daughter’s Constitutional rights. Even the American Civil Liberties Union rebuffed Hernandez, because organization officials didn’t feel the case “has the potential to achieve broad and lasting advances in civil liberties.”
They were not alone. Despite concerns cited by the website ChipFreeSchools.com, including a position paper put together by groups such as the ACLU, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Big Brother Watch, Citizens’ Council for Health Freedom, Constitutional Alliance, Freedom Force International, Friends of Privacy USA, the Identity Project and Privacy Activism, the only concern cited was the idea said no students should be subjected to the “chipping” program “unless there is sufficient evidence of its safety and effectiveness.”
In other words, safety and effectiveness trump the right to privacy. Whitehead noted that the argument used by government officials is that a person has no expectation of privacy in a public school, or on the sidewalk outside the building. He reveals the absurdity of such thinking. “If a student is walking down the hallway and talking to his girlfriend, should the school have the ability to read their lips to see what they are talking about?” he asks. “What’s the difference between that and being an animal in a zoo?” If the usurpers prevail, very soon there will be no difference at all.
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