Texas School District Drops Embattled RFID Student IDs; Opts For Tons Of Cameras Insteadby Tim Cushing
Jul. 22, 2013
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The Northside Independent School District (NISD) of Texas, best known for being sued by a student over its mandatory RFID card policy, is dropping the technology that originally landed it in the courtroom.
These chipped student ID cards were deployed to track students in hopes of bumping up the district's attendance numbers -- thus increasing its share of funding tied to daily attendance. Despite the court deciding in its favor, declaring the cards didn't violate the students' privacy or "right of religion," the district has decided to abandon the RFID tracking system. Apparently, the technology wasn't quite the attendance silver bullet administration thought it would be, as Slate's Will Oremus discovered.
Northside Independent School District spokesman Pascual Gonzalez told me that the microchip-ID program turned out not to be worth the trouble. Its main goal was to increase attendance by allowing staff to locate students who were on campus but didn't show up for roll call. That was supposed to lead to increased revenue. But attendance at the two schools in question—a middle school and a high school—barely budged in the year that the policy was in place. And school staff found themselves wasting a lot of time trying to physically track down the missing students based on their RFID locators.Great. So something was so direly important it needed to be battled in court, but so ultimately useless the district abandoned it a year later. The failure of RFID cards to attach these Texas schools to the state money train probably won't deter other schools from implementing this technology. If anything, the court's ruling will make it easier for other districts to defend themselves against privacy complaints.
The most disappointing aspect is that the district has decided to swap one form of surveillance for another.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez told me Northside plans to capture the safety and security benefits of RFID chips through other technological means. "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. 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."Some call it a panopticon. Some call it an umbrella. Using the word "umbrella" lends it a protective aspect, which is a bit misleading. This tactic seems unlikely to increase attendance and there's very little evidence that indicates more cameras = more safety.
The district's administrator also took care to point out that dropping the RFID cards was not a victory for civil liberties advocates.
But the backlash and the lawsuit weren't the deciding factors, Gonzalez told me. "While [privacy groups] are extolling the fact that they won, the fact is that that was a very minor part of our conversation, because the federal court and the court of appeals both upheld Northside's position on that. We were on solid ground."Well, whatever justifies the district's actions, I guess. Gonzalez' statement isn't very flattering though, painting him as someone who values control over providing a welcoming learning environment.