National Public Radio reported on a new federal lawsuit out of Texas on Monday, December 17, 2012. On the 17th, a federal judge will hear a case dealing with an experimental program that places locator chips into student IDs. The motivation for the school is monetary. Attendance equals dollars and the chips provide more accurate counts of how many students are on school grounds. For money strapped school districts, this is a way to squeeze a few more dollars out of the federal government. The school district in Texas estimates gaining 1.7 million dollars out of a program that cost between 260,000 to 500,000, according to the two NPR stories.
However, some students and parents are challenging the use of the locator chip. One argument is that it violates the freedom of religion. One evangelical student believes that the chip is analogous to the ‘mark of the beast’ discussed in Revelations. The chip program is to this family of evangelicals the same as the flag salute or school prayer is to Jehovah’s Witnesses or a school prayer was to Engel (see Minersville v. Gobitas (1940); West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943); Engel v. Vitale (1962)). Other parents and students challenge the chip program as a violation of the right to privacy.
A classroom discussion of this case last week would probably be a good case to discuss the intent of the first amendment and the balancing approach that the courts tend to use when dealing with schools and their role as parens patriae. The school claims that the chips will be used for attendance and not monitoring students whereabouts on a constant basis. However, the motivation for the program is monetary and that definitely ranks below the preferred freedoms.
However, while the motivation may have been monetary, in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown, CT, the school district may have a more compelling rationale for keeping the chips—the ability to locate each and every student during a crisis and after a crisis. Even if the attorneys for the school district did not prepare to argue the safety interest, the facts of the case surely will bring these events to mind and solidify the school district’s interest when balanced against the other fundamental rights. The safety interest, even more so than a policy to protect students from drugs and the drug culture (Morse v. Frederick (2007), again would be hard to ignore. This case may, in the end, be an excellent example of extra-judicial factors beyond personal preferences influencing judicial decision-making.
 Find NPR’s story here: http://www.npr.org/2012/12/17/167277175/teenagers-faith-at-odds-with-locator-tags-in-school-ids and an earlier story here: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=166023704