By Francisco Vara-Orta
From My San Antonio
A federal judge Tuesday ruled that Northside Independent School District can transfer a student from her magnet school for refusing to wear her student ID badge to protest a new electronic tracking system.
U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia rejected a lawsuit brought by Andrea Hernandez, 15, through her father, Steve Hernandez, backed by lawyers provided by the Rutherford Institute.
The lawsuit had sought an injunction so she could stay in Jay High School's magnet school for science and engineering without having to wear the identification badge.
The badges contain a chip used to track students' on-campus whereabouts but Northside ISD officials had offered to let her wear it without the chip.
Andrea refused, saying it violated her constitutional rights and religious beliefs, and after Northside officials reassigned her to Taft High School, her regular neighborhood school, the family filed suit in November.
“Today's court ruling affirms NISD's position that we did make reasonable accommodation” to Andrea's religious concerns, the district said in an emailed statement. “The family now has the choice to accept the accommodation and stay at the magnet program, or return to her home campus” later this month.
The Hernandez family declined comment Tuesday, but Andrea said after a hearing last month that she would appeal if she wasn't satisfied with Garcia's ruling.
Officials with the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization based in Charlottesville, Va., said Tuesday they would back an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“By declaring Andrea Hernandez's objections to be a secular choice and not grounded in her religious beliefs, the district court is placing itself as an arbiter of what is and is not religious,” said John W. Whitehead, the institute's president.
This is simply not permissible.”
At last month's hearing, Steven and Andrea Hernandez testified they consider the tags to be the “mark of the beast” foretold as a tool of the Antichrist in the biblical book of Revelation. Responding to a question afterward, Steven Hernandez said, “In this case, Northside is the Antichrist.”
The district is testing a “radio frequency identification,” or RFID, tracking system and picked Jones Middle School and Jay for the pilot program.
With a combined 4,200 students, both have struggled with attendance issues. State funding is partly based on attendance, and if the technology generates significant extra income in a budget-cutting era, the district might decide to install it at all 112 of its campuses.
Administrators use it mainly to identify students who are in the building but missed morning roll call, although the system also can locate individual students any time of day. It keeps an electronic history of each badge, so operators can retrace a student's general movements. In a 25-page ruling, Garcia said the five claims of violations of federal and state civil liberties and religious laws that the lawsuit asserted failed to meet requirements to get the injunction.
The issue of school safety trumps some of the claims, he wrote, and cited examples from Northside Superintendent Brian Woods' testimony that the RFID program has allowed educators to quickly find students during emergencies.
“In today's climate, one would be hard pressed to argue that the safety and security of the children and educators in our public school system is not a compelling governmental interest,” Garcia wrote. “One could envision many different methods of ensuring safety and security in schools, and the requirement that high school students carry a uniform ID badge issued for those attending classes on campus is clearly one of the least restrictive means available.”
Classes resumed for Hernandez and all Northside students Monday. The second semester doesn't officially start until Jan. 22 at the magnet school she attends. Northside officials had agreed to let her stay and use the old badge pending the judge's ruling.
Although not a first for Texas school districts, Northside trustees' approval of the RFID program in May drew nationwide attention, evoking skepticism and ire from both left and right, from civil liberties groups to conservative media outlets.
Two school districts in the Houston area — Spring and Santa Fe ISDs — have used the technology for several years and have reported gains of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for improved attendance.
The Hernandez family made the media rounds shortly after the program was announced. Steven Hernandez joined others to protest it outside Jones Middle on the first day of classes in August.
“We firmly believe that it is our Hell Fire Belief that if we compromise our faith and religious freedom to allow you to track my daughter while she is at school it will condemn us to hell,” Hernandez wrote in a letter dated Sept. 4 sent to district officials and quoted in Garcia's ruling.
Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson has said no state law or policy regulates the use of such devices and the decision is up to local districts, which Garcia also cited in his ruling Tuesday, stating “the courts should not lightly interfere with the daily operation of school systems.”