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Texas school strikes devil's bargain, drops RFID student tracking

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The Texas school that expelled a student for refusing to comply with its plan to track pupils with RFID tags has dropped the scheme, saying it just doesn't work.

In November, Northside Independent School District (NISD) in San Antonio, Texas, began a trial of RFID tracking for students in an attempt to cut down on truancy. The district gets extra funding if students don't skip out after the register is taken, so NISD spent $500,000 on its "Student Locator Project".

The school issued students with a lanyard containing the RFID system, and insisted that they be used to get full access to the cafeteria, library, and even some restrooms. One student, Andrea Hernandez, gained national prominence when she was suspended for refusing to wear the lanyard on privacy grounds and because it conflicted with her religious beliefs.

"I feel it's the implementation of the Mark of the Beast. It's also an invasion of my privacy and my other rights," she said at the time.

The courts didn't buy that argument, and Ms. Hernandez was kicked out in January and moved to another school. The NISD suffered the apparent attentions of Anonymous over the case as well.

Now the scheme has been dropped, but NISD spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told Slate the publicity had nothing to do with the school's decision, and that the system was dropped because it simply didn't work.

Gonzalez said that the pilot system hadn't appreciably cut truancy rates, and had in some cases been more trouble than it was worth. Teachers spent too much time trying to physically track down students marked as missing by the RFID system, so instead students would be put under enhanced camera surveillance, he explained.

"We're very confident we can still maintain a safe and secure school because of the 200 cameras that are installed at John Jay High School and the 100 that are installed at Jones Middle School," he said. "Plus we are upgrading those surveillance systems to high-definition and more sophisticated cameras. So there will be a surveillance-camera umbrella around both schools."

You might think that from a privacy perspective this is a bit of an own goal, but that didn't stop the Rutherford Institute, which represented Ms. Hernandez in her legal fight with the school, from claiming a victory.

"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 its attorney, John Whitehead.

"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."

There's no word on what the new camera upgrades will cost, nor if the school will have to hire extra staff to monitor their output, or if hoodies will have to be banned to ensure the CCTV gets a good headshot. The NISD is also hiring more police officers to patrol the halls.

But El Reg suggests that the truancy issue could be remedied by ignoring the technical fix and going down a more old-fashioned route. The school could spend the money getting class sizes down to a reasonable size where the teacher actually has a chance of spotting if someone is playing truant. It's old-fashioned, but it might just work. ®

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