‘Mark Of The Beast’ Or Just A School Truancy Tracking Card?

Meme created by Lorraine Devon Wilke courtesy of Wikipedia image

The teenage years are hard enough to traverse all on their own, much less in a culture that ping-pongs through cultural touchstones like so much hop-scotch. Debates and opposition – sometime vehement – play out in every form of media with issues related to religion, social politics, equal rights, etc., and if the adults in the room have a hard time sorting it all out, imagine how the kids feel?

One San Antonio, Texas teenager, Andrea Hernandez, feels pretty darn put-upon and she’s willing to accept a suspension from school to make her point. Her point? That she will not wear the school’s mandated tracking card because it’s the “mark of the beast.”

According to an interview given by Ms. Hernandez’s father to Wired Magazine:

The Hernandez family, which hold Christian beliefs, told InfoWars that the sophomore is declining to wear the badge because it signifies Satan, or the Mark of the Beast warning in Revelations 13: 16-18.

The badge program was implemented at the John Jay High School in the Northside Independent School District (NISD) in San Antonio, in an effort to mitigate growing truancy and its negative impact on school dollars. In most state-funded schools, dollars are paid on a per-student, per-day ratio and the child’s presence in their chair at the start of the day activates the funding allotted for them. Not there, no funding. So schools have looked for ways to keep better tabs on their wandering student population and the tracking cards seemed the least intrusive and most effective. Not everybody sees it that way.

While some parents and families object on a purely “civil liberties” issue, Andrea’s complaint is a more dramatic one. Fundamentalist Christians of the “Left Behind” ilk, have a very specific interpretation of Revelations 13:16-18 in the Bible. In an additional interview given to InfoWars by the Hernandez family, their religious angle is clearly the salient point:

For many Christian families, including the Hernandez,’ the mandatory policy is eerily close to the predictions of Revelations 13: 16-18, which warns of the Mark of the Beast:

16 He causes all, both small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hand or on their foreheads, 17 and that no one may buy or sell except one who has the mark or[a] the name of the beast, or the number of his name. 18 Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man: His number is 666. (New King James Version)

As such, the policy has also been considered a violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to free speech and freedom of religion. Many also consider it to be an unreasonable and unwarranted violation of privacy, protected under the Fourth Amendment.

For Andrea, her refusal to wear the badge has meant school suspension, something she was willing to accept in defense of her religious beliefs. But the ensuing brouhaha within the school community was swift. A protest was organized in early October and family appeared on various local talk shows to air their grievances. The pushback got hot enough that the school  was willing to make accommodations. Per InfoWars:

In response to public outcry and pressure from rights groups, the school has offered to remove the battery and chip, but wouldn’t budge on mandating the ID. Their offer would also require the Hernandez family to end their criticism and agree to comply with and even tout the policy, something Andrea’s father Steve Hernandez finds unacceptable.

Steve Hernandez stated, “[A]s part of the accommodation my daughter and I would have to agree to stop criticizing the program and publicly support … it. I told [the Deputy Superintendent] that was unacceptable because it would imply an endorsement of the district’s policy and my daughter and I should not have to give up our constitutional rights to speak out against a program that we feel is wrong.”

Andrea has instead agreed to carry her original ID card, which was issued when she began at the school, and was told would be valid for her entire four years there.

But apparently the timing of this compromise was too late to allow Andrea to vote for the Homecoming King & Queen, or participate in other school functions because she did not have what was considered “proper ID.” Obviously these are not cataclysmic events, but they go a long way toward making high school less endurable place to an involved teenager. But a lot is at stake, for civil libertarians, religious adherents, and the struggling school administrators.

Because as more and more schools are impacted by the loss of state dollars, their administrators are looking for effective, creative ways to keep their budgets funded. It’s likely, in fact, that other schools will consider controlling their truancy issues with something similar to the tracking card, but many at John Jay High School refuse. When the continuing public outcry got loud enough to attract more than just local attention, the civil liberties lawyers at The Rutherford Institute got involved with the Hernandez case. This organization describes its mission statement as follows:

Founded in 1982 by constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead, The Rutherford Institute is a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.

The Rutherford Institute has emerged as one of the nation’s leading advocates of civil liberties and human rights, litigating in the courts and educating the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting individual freedom in the United States and around the world.

Big guns to defend a little girl, but clearly they see this as an issue with heft and high public interest.  BBC News puts it this way:

The Rutherford Institute, a liberties campaign group, joined the protests and went to court to get a restraining order to stop NISD [Northside Independent School District] suspending Ms. Hernandez.

A district court judge has granted the restraining order so Ms. Hernandez can go back to school and ordered a hearing next week on the NISD radio tag project.

The Rutherford Institute said the NISD’s suspension violated Texan laws on religious freedom as well as free speech amendments to the US constitution.

“The court’s willingness to grant a temporary restraining order is a good first step, but there is still a long way to go – not just in this case, but dealing with the mindset, in general, that everyone needs to be monitored and controlled,” said John Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute in a statement.

Mr. Whitehead said student tagging and locating projects were the first step in producing a “compliant citizenry.”

“These ‘student locator’ programmes (sic) are ultimately aimed at getting students used to living in a total surveillance state where there will be no privacy, and wherever you go and whatever you text or email will be watched by the government,” he said.

As a parent who has been very involved in the governance of a public school, I well know the struggles that come with balancing student/family needs and preferences with the very real and unrelenting demands of keeping a school funded and functioning at a high enough level to attract the very best students possible. Despite my own squeamishness about the invasive implications of a “tracking card,” I also understand the frustrations felt by school administrators caught between the needs of the school and the, often times, lack of cooperation and collaboration from parents. At many a governance council meeting I would hear statistics of the children chronically tardy or absent, both of which impacted school funding, both of which were under the control of school parents. And yet far too often the families involved made little effort to step up to the plate to help remedy the situation with their specific children. In this kind of “rock and a hard place” situation for schools, it is not hard to imagine that the tracking card presents a viable option to hamstrung school leaders.

What is the answer? Certainly a child’s religious beliefs and civil liberties must be respected, but when a family enrolls a child in a state funded public school, they do so knowing that there will be certain mandates applied differently from ones at a private pay school. And when school dollars are dependent upon attendance, a school must be responsible to its entire population to do everything possible to prevent those dollars from being lost to truancy or lack of attendance.

Truancy controls or Mark of the Beast? @ Wired.co.UK

As for Andrea Hernandez, Wired Magazine reports the current, holding, status:

The district, in a letter last week to the family, said it would allow her to continue attending the magnet school with “the battery and chip removed.” But the girl’s father, Steve Hernandez, said the district told him that the offer came on the condition that he must “agree to stop criticising the programme (sic) and publicly support it,” a proposition the father told WND Education that he could not stomach.

John Whitehead at the Rutherford Institute frames the compromise this way:

“The court’s willingness to grant a temporary restraining order is a good first step, but there is still a long way to go – not just in this case, but dealing with the mindset, in general, that everyone needs to be monitored and controlled.”

Mr Whitehead said student tagging and locating projects were the first step in producing a “compliant citizenry.”

“These ‘student locator’ programmes (sic) are ultimately aimed at getting students used to living in a total surveillance state where there will be no privacy, and wherever you go and whatever you text or email will be watched by the government,” he said.

Do I believe that? NO. I don’t believe a “total surveillance state” is what public schools are aiming for; I believe they’re attempting to solve crushing budgetary concerns and student truancy problems in the best way they can afford and can effectively control. Whether or not tracking cards are ultimately adjudicated to be the “best way” remains to be seen. But until public schools operate on a different funding platform and remain obligated to solve problems in ways specific to public funding, they will always be at the mercy of their wide community with its variety of religious, ethnic, language, financial, and parenting differences. It’s a difficult task, managing all that with consistently lower funding.

And while I appreciate that the Hernandez family follows a religion that tells them the school’s truancy program is the handiwork of the Devil, I would suggest they either look to reach a reasonable compromise with the school, or they consider a private school. Publically funded educations DO come with strings….in this case, tracking cards appears to be one of them.

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