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Teaching students to be suspects

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 8:57 p.m.

Having reported on small but growing numbers of public school students who are eagerly learning to be knowledgeable citizens, I must now turn to a much larger, growing problem within public education.

The one news analyst who is persistently researching and reporting on how members of this generation (and, most likely, subsequent generations) are being relentlessly tracked throughout their school years is John Whitehead, a practicing constitutional attorney who is also founder and president of the Rutherford Institute in Charlottesville, Va.

Recently, he wrote about the Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, where about 4,200 students at Jay High School and Jones Middle School are compelled “to carry ‘smart' identification cards embedded with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tracking devices.”

“These tags,” Whitehead explains, “produce a radio signal that is tied to the students' Social Security numbers, allowing the wearer's precise movements to be constantly monitored.”

Already there are 290 surveillance cameras in these schools. But these ID cards, “which the students are required to wear, will make it possible for school officials to track students' whereabouts at all times.”

As for those who choose not to follow the rules? Whitehead writes: “Those who ... refuse to wear the SmartID badge will also be forced to stand in separate lunch lines (and be) denied participation in student government and activities ... .”

Other student-tracking programs are being tested in Baltimore, Anaheim, Houston and the Palos Heights School District near Chicago. Some cities already have fully implemented programs, including Houston, Texas, which began using RFID chips to track students as early as 2004.

As for whatever other tracking ingenuities are ahead, Whitehead finds that “RFID is only one aspect of what is an emerging industry (with government involvement) in tracking, spying and identification devices.”

He writes: “Schools in Pinellas County, Fla., now use palm reading devices to allow children to purchase lunch. The (palm) reader takes an infrared picture of the palm's vein structure, and then matches that information with the child's identity. (Fifty-thousand) students in the country are using the readers, and another 60,000 are expected to soon join the program. Palm scanning identification devices are spreading to hospitals and schools across the country.”

There will be some Americans who can't escape these omnipresent eyes and will nonetheless go their own rebellious ways. But will there be enough of these constitutionally aroused citizens?

During the inevitably extensive presidential debates in 2016, will any candidate from either party demand the re-education of public school authorities who allow and enforce the teaching of students to be suspects?

Years ago, as we became aware that the FBI was listening in on our phone conversations, I often heard, “I have nothing to hide. I don't care.”

I don't hear that much any more. But the FBI still cares. What's the citizenry going to do about all of these invasions of privacy, including the privacy of our schoolchildren?

Nat Hentoff is an authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. He is a member of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Cato Institute, where he is a senior fellow.

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