On The Front Lines
Victory: San Antonio Public School Officials End RFID Tracking Program, Citing Civil Liberties Lawsuit, Negative Publicity, Low Participation Rates
SAN ANTONIO, Texas — After a drawn-out battle waged in court and within the community, school officials with the Northside Independent School District have announced their decision to stop using a student tracking program that relied on RFID tracking badges containing tiny chips that produce a radio signal, enabling school officials to track students’ location on school property. According to school officials, the decision to cease the “Student Locator Project” was due in part to low participation rates, negative publicity, and a lawsuit by The Rutherford Institute. Rutherford Institute attorneys had filed suit against school officials in November 2012 on behalf of Andrea Hernandez, a sophomore at John Jay High School’s Science and Engineering Academy, who was expelled from the magnet school in January 2013 after objecting to the badges based on religious freedom and privacy concerns. The question of whether Hernandez will be permitted to return to John Jay has yet to be resolved.
“This decision by Texas school officials to end the student locator program is proof that change is possible if Americans care enough to take a stand and make their discontent heard,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “As Andrea Hernandez and her family showed, the best way to ensure that your government officials hear you is by never giving up, never backing down, and never remaining silent—even when things seem hopeless.”
In 2012, the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas, launched a program, the “Student Locator Project,” aimed ostensibly at increasing 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 were required to wear “SmartID” card badges embedded with an RFID tracking chip which made it possible for school officials to track students’ whereabouts on campus at all times. School officials hoped to expand the program to the district’s 112 schools. For 15-year-old Andrea Hernandez, a Christian, the badges pose a significant religious freedom concern in addition to the obvious privacy issues. In response to her requests to opt out of the program and use chipless badges, Hernandez was informed that “there will be consequences for refusal to wear an ID card.” For example, students who refused to take part in the ID program were not able to access essential services like the cafeteria and library, nor would they be able to purchase tickets to extracurricular activities. According to Hernandez, teachers were even requiring students to wear the IDs to use the bathroom.
In coming to Andrea’s defense, Rutherford Institute attorneys alleged that the school’s attempts to penalize, discriminate and retaliate against Andrea violated her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Although a district court judge for Bexar County, Texas, granted The Rutherford Institute’s request for a temporary restraining order to prevent NISD from expelling Hernandez based on her objections to the tracking badge, both the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Western District of Texas denied her accommodation, with the Western District judge ruling against the sophomore on the grounds that her objections were “not grounded in her religious beliefs” and were a “secular choice rather than a religious concern.” As constitutional attorney Whitehead pointed out, the ruling not only was “a sad statement on our nation’s growing intolerance for dissent and for those whose religious beliefs may differ from the mainstream” but it sent a clear message that it’s more important for the schools to make money than for individual freedoms to be respected.
Affiliate attorneys Jerri Lynn Ward, a private practitioner, and Anand Agneshwar and Anna Thompson of Arnold & Porter assisted The Rutherford Institute with Andrea’s defense.