The SmartID concept isn’t new, but it hasn’t exactly caught on nationwide. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union raised concerns about a similar initiative at a California school. That same year, a suburban Houston school district began putting the chips in its student IDs, and it served as the blueprint for Northside’s pilot program that began this fall.
Ronald Stephens, executive director of the nonprofit National School Safety Center, said he didn’t believe the technology to be widespread but predicted “it’ll be the next wave” in schools. The chips use radio-frequency identification (RFID) transmitters and only work on campus.
The Northside school district spent roughly $261,000 to equip students at one high school and one middle school with SmartIDs, a decision made with safety and efficiency in mind, said district spokesman Pascual Gonzalez. Imagine quickly accounting for students in the event of a lockdown, he said, or cafeteria lines moving faster as scanners instantly identify who’s picking up that lunch tray.
Yet the biggest motivation was financial. In Texas, school funding is based on daily attendance. The more students seated in homeroom when the first bell rings, the more state dollars the school receives. If a student is lingering in the hallway or the library when roll is called, the marked absence hurts the school’s bottom line.
But with the locator chips—the district doesn’t like to call them “tracking”—a clerk in the main office can find out if a student is elsewhere on campus, and if so, include the student in the school’s attendance count. Every student found amounts to another $30 in funding, based on the school’s calculations. In that way, those moving red dots that represent students on the clerk’s computer screen are like finding change in the couch cushions.
Gonzalez said the district has estimated another $1.7 million in funding if the program delivers on expectations, somewhat lessening the sting of losing $61.5 million after state lawmakers cut public school funding in Texas by nearly $5 billion last year.
“Nobody is sitting at a bank of monitors looking for the whereabouts of 3,000 students,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t have the personnel for it, nor do we have the need to do that. But when I need to find [a student], I can enter his random number and I can find him somewhere as a red dot on that computer screen. ‘Oh, there he is, in Science Room 22,’ or whatever. So we can locate students, but it’s not about tracking them.”
Hernandez’s family isn’t convinced. Nor is a Virginia-based civil rights group, the Rutherford Institute, which took up Hernandez’s cause and filed the lawsuit against the district.
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