Palm Beach County school district looking into using fingerprint tech to keep better track of kids

It's a high tech idea whose time has — or may sometime soon — come.

Palm Beach County schools officials are considering a proposal that would have the more than 60,000 students who ride a big yellow bus to school each day giving their fingerprints on an electronic key pad to get on the bus.

In a July 9 message on his department's blog, School District Chief of Support Operations Joe Sanches told principals that based on their responses in a recent anonymous survey on the use of biometrics in schools "we will seek Board approval to pursue a pilot use on school buses."

Simply put, biometrics is the use of a person's unique biological characteristics — most typically their fingerprint — to identify them. For years now, school districts around the nation have used electronic fingerprint scanners to keep track of which child gets on which school bus and which child checks out which book from school media centers, and to allow children to access their lunch accounts in cafeterias.

Sanches said his department has yet to work out all of the details of a proposal for Palm Beach County's schools, but said "we would like to consider doing a pilot to help with attendance on buses."

In his message to principals, he said he got 48 responses to his five-question anonymous survey. About 60 percent of principals responding said they agreed that using biometric technology was better than simply giving students ID cards. Fifty-one percent said they would support using the fingerprint technology for student attendance, in the cafeteria lunch line and media centers, and to keep track of students on buses.

Palm Beach County has dabbled in fingerprint technology in the past, with pilot projects in some school cafeterias like Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton. Food Services General Manager Allison Monbleau said that pilot was stopped about three years ago because parents had to sign and return a form to opt into the system. It only really worked if most of the majority of parents opted their children in, she said, or else the lunch line is slowed by too many children still entering their access codes.

Unfortunately, Monbleau said, few parents opted in at the pilot schools. As a result, the effectiveness of the biometric technology was hampered.

Don Estridge High Tech also had plans at one point to test a fingerprint scanners in classrooms to keep track of attendance, said Assistant Principal Mike McCurdy. But those plans fell through as the vendor creating the attendance scanner was never able to finish the product for testing.

But the technology has stuck in other areas. Mike Burke, the district's chief operations officer, said fingerprint scanners are used for all of the time clocks for the district's roughly 11,000 hourly employees — like bus drivers.

Next door, in Martin County, fingerprint scanners are in every middle and high school cafeteria lunch line. School district spokeswoman Cathleen Brennan said the three high schools in the district cost about $1,260 each to set up the lunchroom fingerprint technology, and $103 per year to maintain the software and equipment. The district's five middle schools, which have fewer lunch lines than high schools, cost $900 each to set up and $103 per year to maintain.

Brennan said parents can choose to opt out of the system, and that it speeds up the lunch line because children don't have to deal with remembering an access code to get to their lunch account. It also better ensures security because students can steal another student's ID card or access code, but they can't steal a fingerprint.

Palm Beach County has 23 traditional high schools, 33 traditional middle schools, 107 elementary schools and 17 alternative schools. At the prices Martin County paid it would cost Palm Beach County nearly $29,000 for all high schools and $29,700 for middle schools to set up fingerprint scanners in lunchrooms and about $5,768 a year to maintain the software and equipment.

The Desert Sands Unified School District in the California's Inland Empire region tested early versions of fingerprint scanners on school buses but no longer use them.

"It didn't really work out well for us," said Desert Sands Schools Transportation Director Rick Majors, who said the scanners they used cost about $1,000 per unit.

Although Sanches' department has yet to flush out all of the details, School Board member Chuck Shaw said as a former school principal he likes the general concept of using fingerprint scanners to keep track of kids on buses.

"Especially with little kids, safety is critical," Shaw said. "If there are any tools out there that can help us keep track of children and ensure safety, I think it is well worth exploring."

But, he added, "The obvious question is that I'm sure it is going to be a big cost."

One question principals in the survey had difficulty answering is how they thought the public would react to fingerprint scanners. About 45 percent of principals

said they were unsure if too many parents would object to scanners being used in their child's school. But about 79 percent of principals also said that with enough time and marketing, parents would come around to accepting fingerprint scanning.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation — which works to protect consumer and privacy rights in the electronic age — said making kids give their fingerprints to get on a bus seemed like "overkill" and something of an invasion of privacy.

"For lack of a better word," Tien said, "it is creepy to contemplate a plan that involves fingerprinting all the kids in a school."

Still, Sanches said he would be discussing the idea with school board members at a future meeting. "We are well aware of the fact that some people have concerns about using biometric data," he said, "and we would not want to proceed with a pilot before going to the Board."

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