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February 24, 2005 - (US Web)

Treating Students Like Cattle

By Geov Parrish

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

A rural California school becomes the first to require students to wear tracking devices
Back when I was in school, we used to joke that the administrators treated us like we were in some sort of private prison.

Turns out we were just a bit ahead of our time.

In rural Sutter, California, a town just north of Sacramento with a population of 2,300, a controversial new program has all of the students in the one-school district being forced to wear radio-frequency identification badges that can track the students. It's the same technology used to track cattle in feedlots, or product inventory in factories.

The badges, introduced at Brittan Elementary School in January, are defended by school administrators as making attendance-gathering easier. (You know how arduous THAT task is. It must be the hardest thing teachers do all day...)

And, presumably, it can help find students who get lost on the way to the restroom -- at least, the ones without the wherewithal to ditch the badges. The badges are also supposed to "reduce vandalism and improve student safety," although it's not clear how.

Naturally, some parents -- who weren't consulted before the system was imposed -- and the ACLU are up in arms about this latest invasion of student privacy. Beyond the obvious, parents are also concerned that information encoded in the badge could fall into the wrong hands, or that the radiation from the badge might pose a health hazard to the kids.

School officials brush aside those objections. And we already know that students, like prisoners, have no entitlement to privacy in our modern legal system. They can be drug tested, have bodies or lockers searched, and have freedom of speech or assembly denied on the whim of school officials. Metal detectors are now in place in many urban school districts.

But electronic badges? And in a small town?

The motivation for this system is not entirely a mystery; it turns out that the company that makes the technology, InCom, is a local company co-founded by the parent of a former Brittan student. Some parents are suspicious of the financial arrangements between the district and the company, which hopes to market the technology nationwide.

Just what we need: A nation full of students, like those in Sutter, wearing an identification card around their neck with their picture, name, and grade, and a wireless transmitter that beams their ID number to a teacher's handheld computer when the child passes under an antenna mounted over the classroom door.

Why not just implant a chip? Or tattoo a bar code, and use supermarket scanners? It'd be a lot less expensive.

It should scarcely have to be said, but human beings, no matter how small, are not cattle. They are not widgets in a factory. They do not deserve to be treated as such. Teachers should be able to recognize names, not just badge numbers on an electronic readout.

There is no particular reason to have students wear this sort of paraphernalia, except to remind them, at all times, that Big Brother -- OK, the principal -- is watching. And that the students are owned by the school.

The scariest thing about this technology is that there is absolutely no reason it need be limited to elementary school students, and there is virtually no limit to the amount of information it can carry.

How long before do-gooders start deciding such chips should also carry medical information, information on the home address and parents? How long before the same technology pops up in -- well, in prisons? In the workplace? How 'bout if we have sex offenders wear them upon release from jail, so they can be properly shunned in their communities? Better yet, why not have everyone wearing badges like these, with all the information authorities might need to, you know, be authorities.

Better to have this idea die a quiet death with one unfortunate, isolated school district. But somehow, this smells like some bureaucrat's idea of progress.

Geov Parrish is a Seattle-based columnist and reporter for Seattle Weekly, In These Times and Eat the State! He writes the daily Straight Shot for WorkingForChange. He can be reached by email at -- please indicate whether your comments may be used on WorkingForChange in an upcoming "letters" column.

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