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By David K. Li

The American Civil Liberties Union is accusing an Arizona high school of violating students' privacy rights and shaming them with a "scarlet badge" over grades.

Students at Mingus Union High School in Cottonwood, about 100 miles north of Phoenix, wear badges around their necks every day on campus — red-color IDs for freshmen and sophomores, and gray for juniors and seniors.

This fall, upperclassmen who are failing classes are being forced to wear red underclass IDs, the ACLU said in a letter that claims Mingus Union is in violation of federal statutes on keeping academic information private.

"The District's 'scarlet badge' policy in which it publicly identifies and shames underperforming students, does not bear a rational relationship to a legitimate educational interest," according to a Dec. 28 letter by Kathleen Brody, legal director for the ACLU of Arizona, to the district.

The civil rights group cited a specific case of third-year student Jordan Pickett, but said other upperclassmen too have been hit with the requirement to wear the "scarlet badge." The ACLU said it doesn't know exactly how many 11th- and 12th graders are wearing red badges.

The school district's lawyer responded to the ACLU this week, saying Pickett is being forced to wear red because she lacks enough credits to be classified as an 11th grader.

The district lawyer said a student's grade level is considered "directory information" and thus allowed under federal academic privacy statutes.

The school district lawyer, Susan Segal, also wrote that color codes on badges are important because upperclassmen have greater privileges than underclassmen, including the right to leave campus for lunch.

"Thus any characterization of the badges as a 'scarlet' letter that implies the use of the color is punitive is misleading," Segal wrote.

But the ACLU claims other 11th- and 12th-graders who have failed a class but are still on schedule to graduate are among those being forced to wear red badges.

"The school knows what it's inflicting on its students and the fact that they don't care is quite alarming," ACLU Arizona spokeswoman Marcela Taracena said Friday.

Regina Gee, who doubles as both the high school principal and acting superintendent of the school district, insisted the color-coding is only a reflection of class credits earned by a student.

"Juniors receive gray IDs as long as they are a true junior," she said. "The assertion by the ACLU that we don't care about our students is heartbreaking."

The ACLU said it hopes to continue talks with the school district and avoid a legal challenge. Gee seemed to leave that door open.

"We have the very best intentions at heart and have no problem reviewing our practices," she said.