ID badges let Texas school officials track students, raising legal questions

Do you know where your kids are? At two schools in San Antonio, Texas, they can pinpoint a student’s location within inches.

Anson Jones Middle School and John Jay High School are part of a pilot program in the Northside Independent School District. Students wear identification cards embedded with a chip. Each student is assigned a number associated with the chip. Sensors in hallways and rooms can then pick up, for example, when a student moves from the library to hall to English class.

The new program is driven partly by money. Texas gives schools about $30 a student for each day they’re at school, so an accurate count matters, especially during tough economic times.

“We’ve cut 25 positions at this campus alone in the last two years,” Anson Jones principal Wendy Reyes said. “We are finding three to eight students (each day) that we were reporting absent actually on campus.”

Although that may not sound like much, over the course of the year, that can add up to thousands of dollars, money the school needs.

School administrators also point to safety. By being able to locate students at a moment’s notice, they can make sure a building is cleared in the event of a fire, or where each student is during a lockdown.

As a practical matter, it also makes it easier to find a student when a parent needs to pick him or her up for an appointment. The district also stresses that sensors are only active inside campus, so students can’t be located once they leave school.

That’s no comfort to critics of the program, who point out that just because the school isn’t tracking students off campus doesn’t mean no one will. Could someone buy off-the-shelf equipment to track students like the school does? Could someone hack into the system?

In addition to these questions, there are even larger issues, the American Civil Liberties Union says. Its members are taking an interest as more schools adopt this technology. They worry it violates a student’s First Amendment association rights, the right to gather, for example, at a protest on campus.

“I think that the right to be left alone is something that a lot of Texans value,” Matt Simpson with the Texas ACLU said. And he says, the program sets a precedent. “Tracking someone at school sort of opens up the door to students kind of being used to being tracked,” Simpson said.

Some students weren’t thrilled with the idea either.

“At first they were saying, ‘We don’t like it, it is dumb,’” student Tira Starr said, “but all the people saying that were the skippers, the ones always getting into trouble.” Starr herself doesn’t have a problem with the new ID badge.

Perhaps the ultimate indicator of acceptance within the student body is that they’ve now taken to personalizing and decorating their ID badges and lanyards.

The school district is pleased with the program. Attendance is up 3 percent since it started a month ago. Even so, administrators say, it’s too soon to tell whether the program will be expanded to other schools in the district next year.