In efforts to improve attendance records, a Texas school district has announced that it will start monitoring students using microchips, an initiative critics fear could lead to privacy violations.
Students in the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio in rural Bexar County will be required at all times to walk with identification cards in their pockets that are equipped with Radio Frequency Identification System (RFID) microchips.
Officials in Bexar County, where the chips reportedly will be tested out on 1200 students at Jones Middle School, made the decision to implement the program starting next semester in order to improve poor attendance rates, which have prevented schools from receiving $175,000 a day in state assistance.
"It's going to give us the opportunity to track our students in the building," Principal Wendy Reyes of Jones Middle School told KHOU-TV in Houston. "They may have been in the nurse's office, or the counselor's office, or vice principal's office, but they were marked absent from the classroom because they weren't sitting in the class. It will help us have a more accurate account of our attendance."
The school wants to "harness the power of (the) technology to make schools safer, know where our students are all the time in a school, and increase revenue," added district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez. If the microchips prove to be useful, the plan is to expand the tracking system to all 112 schools in the district, and monitor nearly 100,000 students.
KHOU-TV reports that Jay High School, where about 3,000 students attend, will also be a part of the pilot program.
Despite the school district's stated intent with the student tracking program, some members of the public have raised concerns over privacy issues. The RFID technology will even allow teachers to track when students go to the bathroom and for how long they are there, and information about students' whereabouts could potentially end up in the wrong hands.
Even some Northside Independent School District board members have expressed reservations about the tracking plan.
"I think this is overstepping our bounds and is inappropriate," M'Lissa M. Chumbley, a school board trustee, said at a meeting Tuesday, according to San Antonio Express-News. "I'm honestly uncomfortable about this."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged a similar program suggested in 2005 by the Brittan Elementary School Board in Sutter, Calif.
"We are urging the school board to recognize the important civil liberties concerns and safety risks implicated in RFID technology," wrote the ACLU's Nicole Ozer at the time. Ozer, the technology and civil liberties policy director of the organization's Northern California office, added: "RFID badges jeopardize the safety and security of children by broadcasting identity and location information to anyone with a chip reader and subject students to demeaning tracking of their movements. We hope the school district reconsiders this serious issue."
The California program was eventually scrapped.
Parents of students attending Jones Middle School and Jay High School expressed various views on the program to the San Antonio Express-News.
"I would hope teachers can help motivate students to be in their seats instead of the district having to do this," said one parent of an eighth-grader, Margaret Luna. "But I guess this is what happens when you don't have enough money."