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RFID chips let schools track students -- and retain funding -- but some parents object

Nightly News

Students wear IDs embedded with electronic chips.

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Two San Antonio schools have turned to radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to help administrators count and track the whereabouts of students on campus.

Students at Anson Jones Middle School and John Jay High School are required to wear ID cards imbedded with electronic chips, similar to highway toll tags, which allow schools to more accurately record daily attendance.  Public school funding is often tied to the number of students attending class each day. The Northside Independent School District in San Antonio receives about $30 per day in state funding for each student reporting present.

The RFID tracking system can help schools count students who are in the school building, but may have missed the morning roll call.  On a recent morning at Anson Jones Middle School, where 1,200 attend, the traditional roll call counted 71 students absent.  But the RFID system indicated that eight of those 71 were actually in school that day.  A map indicated several students were in the band hall, where practice was running late, while others were near the office.  That’s eight times $30 or $240 the school would have lost that day in funding. 

Pascual Gonzalez, Northside’s communications director, estimates the entire district has been losing about $1.7 million a year because of underreported attendance. He says the RFID system, which costs $261,000, should pay for itself in the first year.

“The revenues that are generated by locating kids who are not in their chairs to answer ‘present,’ but are in the building  –  in the counselor’s office, in the cafeteria, in the hallway, in the gym  –  if we can show they were, in fact, in school, then we can count them present,” he said.

Principal Wendy Reyes says the system has the added benefit of allowing her to find a particular student instantly.  “Sometimes it’s difficult to locate a student in a sea of 1,200 others, so this helps locate them in an emergency,” she said.

The ID tags can only be read on campus, so students cannot be tracked outside the building.

Some parents and students fear the radio ID tags are just too much Big Brother.

Steve Hernandez, whose daughter is a sophomore, objects to the tags on Biblical grounds.  He compared the badges to the “mark of the beast” as described in the Book of Revelations.  “My daughter,” he says, “should not have to compromise (her) religion just because Northside Independent School District wants to get paid.”

The American Civil Liberties Union calls the RFID tags “dehumanizing.”

“What kind of lesson does it teach our children if they’re chipped like cattle and their every movement tracked?” asks Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the ACLU’s Washington, D.C. office.  “It doesn’t create the kind of independent, autonomous people that we want in our democratic society.”

Gonzalez, Northside’s spokesman, says school administrators have no intention of spying on students.

“There’s a misconception that somebody’s sitting in a room with a bank full of monitors looking at where 1,200 kids are here at Anson Middle School. That’s not true,” he said. “It’s not even feasible. We’re not staffed nor are we interested in knowing where all the kids are at a particular moment.”

What the RFID system does do, according to Gonzales, is provide an accurate, daily census of students, which helps the district make money. Based on early results, the district may consider expanding the RFID system to its other 109 schools, encompassing nearly 100,000 students.