Tuesday, November 30, 2004


His crew cut shiny with hair gel, 10-year-old Cody M. King hopped aboard his school bus at Bammel Elementary School and waved a high-tech identification card across a card reader. Information about the time, location and bus he boarded was instantly recorded in a database that police and other officials can access. When he got off the bus at his north Harris County home, he scanned the card again and the computer recorded the details. He said he's glad the police know where he is. "Without the badge I kind of felt safe, and I kind of didn't," Cody said. "But now I feel safe all the time."

The card-reader system is being touted as the latest safety tool for students at Bammel Elementary in the Spring Independent School District. By tracking students, officials say they will be able to get a quicker start on finding children reported missing. "We can't keep them (completely) safe," said Spring ISD Police Chief Alan Bragg. "But if they get off at the wrong stop or don't go home after getting off the bus, we know where to start looking."

Some worry, however, that the new technology poses privacy concerns and offers a false sense of security. "Big Brother is watching you for your own good," said Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a consumer privacy group. "That's the camel's nose in the tent."

Since its February debut in two of the school's buses, the tracking system has been installed and upgraded in six more. Plans are under way to expand the computer technology to all 180 buses in the 28,000-student district by the end of next year. The estimated cost for the complete system is $380,000.

District officials say none of their students has been abducted, but frantic parents have frequently called Bammel when their children didn't arrive home on time. Usually, the students got off the bus at a wrong stop or visited a friend without telling their parents. Often, parents forgot their children were scheduled for after-school club activities. The system, known as Radio Frequency Identification, has a computer chip fitted with an antenna that sends information to a reader. The technology, available for decades, has nearly limitless uses......

Robert Smith, a privacy security consultant near Boston.. said students might be safer if school buses were equipped with seat belts instead of the ID card system. "The police should not be in the business of tracking people," Smith said. Will Harrell, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Texas, agreed. "We oppose watching citizens' movements," he said.

Police Chief Bragg said such concerns are misplaced since the police and school officials aren't continuously monitoring students. Instead, if a student is reported missing, police can access the database to determine where the child left the bus and begin searching the area as quickly as possible.

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If administrators of Kentucky's Boyd County school district can't find a way to force all students to attend sexual orientation and gender identity "tolerance training," the American Civil Liberties Union is threatening to take them to court - again. Ten months ago, the district settled a lawsuit with the ACLU over the right of a student group, the Gay-Straight Alliance, to meet on campus. The year-long litigation strained relations in the conservative northeast portion of the state. In addition to allowing the group to meet on campus after school, district officials agreed that all students, staff and teachers would be required to receive "tolerance training." The agreement stipulated all would attend "mandatory anti-harassment workshops," including the viewing of an hour-long "training" video covering sexual orientation and gender identity issues for middle and high school students.

But ten months on, one-third of Boyd County students have failed to see the video, and that has the ACLU threatening court action. "It sounds like the training can't possibly be done," James Esseks, litigation director for the ACLU's Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, tells the Louisville Courier-Journal. District figures show 105 of 730 middle school students opted out of the training video and 145 of 971 high school students did likewise. On the day scheduled for training, 324 students didn't show up for school.

The current legal snag arises from the fact the original consent decree had no provision for parents exempting their children. "The schools have great latitude in what they want to teach, including what's in training programs, and the training is now part of the school curriculum," Esseks says. "Parents don't get to say I don't want you to teach evolution or this, that or whatever else. If parents don't like it they can homeschool, they can go to a private school, they can go to a religious school."

"Where are the parental rights in this whole thing?" asks Rev. Tim York, president of the Boyd County Ministerial Alliance and head of Defenders Voice, a community group formed to contest the decree. According to the group's website, Defenders Voice "incorporated due to the need for protection of both the physical and mental health of our students and citizens." Its members place blame for their current distress squarely on the ACLU: "We have seen an onslaught of aggressive homosexual activism sweep across our country. In many cases, these activists are supported by the ACLU in their attempts. ... Defenders Voice believes that an organization like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) should not be allowed to tell parents what their children must learn."

The Alliance Defense Fund, a religious-liberties public-interest legal group, has signed on to help Defenders Voice, pledging to sue the school district unless it adopts an opt-out policy for parents this week. Alliance was formed in 1993 with the guidance of several well-known Christian conservatives, including the late Dr. Bill Bright, the late Larry Burkett, Dr. James Dobson, Dr. D. James Kennedy, and the late Marlin Maddoux. Joe Platt, a Cincinnati attorney representing Alliance, says mandatory training on tolerance for homosexuals violates the right of conscience of parents and students who believe such behavior immoral.

But school district attorney, Winter Huff, insists to the Courier-Journal the decree does not violate parental rights: "Students certainly have the right to believe in what they want to believe, but they don't have the right to act out in inappropriate ways. The point is you don't treat people disrespectfully, you don't pick on people, you don't bully them, you don't make them afraid to come to school."

Meanwhile, only one of the seven plaintiffs in the 2003 lawsuit still remain in school. Six have graduated, and the teacher-adviser for the Gay-Straight Alliance club asked to transfer to another campus. The ACLU's Esseks is now questioning whether the mandatory video meets the decree's required hour of anti-harassment training. Like one-third of the students in Boyd County schools, he has yet to view it.


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