The Rutherford Institute has come to the defense of a San Antonio high school student who was told that she must wear a name badge containing a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip as part of her school district's new “Student Locator Project.” So small that they are barely detectable to the human eye, RFID tags produce a radio signal by which the wearer’s precise movements can be constantly monitored, raising serious privacy concerns. For Andrea Hernandez, a sophomore at Jay High School, the badges also pose a significant religious freedom concern.
The Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, launched the “Student Locator Project” ostensibly in order to increase public funding for the district by increasing student attendance rates. As part of the pilot program, roughly 4,200 students at Jay High School and Jones Middle School are being required to carry Smart ID cards embedded with an RFID tracking chip which will actively broadcast a signal at all times. Although the schools already boast 290 surveillance cameras, the cards will make it possible for school officials to track students’ whereabouts at all times. School officials hope to expand the program to the district’s 112 schools, with a student population of 100,000. Although implementation of the system will cost $500,000, school administrators are hoping that if the school district is able to increase attendance by tracking the students’ whereabouts, they will be rewarded with up to $1.7 million from the state government.
High school sophomore Andrea Hernandez, a Christian, expressed her sincere religious objections to being forced to participate in the RFID program, but was told by school officials that “there will be consequences for refusal to wear an ID card.” In response to her public objections, school officials offered to quietly remove the tracking chip from Andrea’s card if the sophomore would agree to wear the new ID without the imbedded RFID chip so as to give the appearance of participation in the Student Locator Project, stop criticizing the program and publicly support the initiative. Hernandez refused the offer.
In coming to Hernandez’s defense, Rutherford attorneys filed a petition for a temporary restraining order and 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 United States Constitution. A district court judge for Bexar County, Texas, granted The Rutherford Institute’s request for a temporary restraining order to prevent Northside Independent School District from removing Hernandez from school. The Temporary Restraining Order, which was then extended by a federal court, enabling Andrea to remain in school.
Most recently, however, U.S. District Judge Orlando L. Garcia for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio denied The Rutherford Institute’s request for a preliminary injunction preventing school officials from expelling Andrea Hernandez, declaring that her refusal to wear a chipless RFID tracking badge is “not grounded in her religious beliefs” and is a “secular choice rather than a religious concern,”. According to the judge’s order, Hernandez has until the end of the current semester to provide written notice to Northside Independent School District officials as to whether she will accept the school’s accommodation of wearing the Smart ID badge without a chip. Institute attorneys intend to appeal the judge’s ruling.
Once looked to as the starting place for imparting principles of freedom and democracy to future generations, America’s classrooms are becoming little more than breeding grounds for compliant citizens—and these RFID surveillance programs are just the tip of the iceberg. While we all want to ensure that our schools are safe, these RFID tracking badges will do little to ensure student safety and, in fact, could potentially be manipulated in such a way as to make students even more vulnerable to attack by predators. The fact is that this program is about one thing only—making money for the schools at the expense of students’ constitutional rights and potentially their safety.