School Lunch Fingerprint Technology in Motion
Biometric technology is being used in school cafeterias in an effort to improve the speed and accuracy of the breakfast and lunch lines.
Students in middle and high schools in West Virginia's Cabell County will soon be paying for their lunches using their index fingers.
Technology already used in many other counties in West Virginia and school districts throughout the nation is being launched in the 12,700-student system in an effort to improve the speed and accuracy of the breakfast and lunch lines.
Students in most of the district's five middle and four high schools have already had their left and right index fingers scanned in preparation for the launch. But some questions and concerns have been raised about how the technology will work.
Officials with the state education department and the Cabell County schools explained that the scanner does not read a full fingerprint. The biometric scan picks five points of the print—there are up to 150 points on a fingerprint—and ties those points to the student's account number.
"It's not a fingerprint, not at all," said Rick Goff, the executive director of the office of child nutrition at the West Virginia Department of Education. According to a letter sent home by Rhonda McCoy, the director of food services for the Cabell County district, the program is being implemented to provide better security for each student's cafeteria account, reduce clerical errors that can occur in breakfast and lunch lines, eliminate the possibility of a student's meal card being stolen and used by another student, and end the problem of students' losing cards or forgetting account numbers.
But the way the letter was distributed may have left some parents upset and possibly others not knowing anything about the implementation of the new technology, which raised concerns among parents. Ms. McCoy said she distributed letters to each middle and high school in mid-September; they were then given to students to give to parents.
Lessons Learned in Akron
The 23,000-student Akron school district in Ohio has been using biometric fingerprint scanning in middle and high school cafeterias since the 2003-04 school year. That year, the district decided to move from cash registers to computerized point-of-sale software and had a choice between implementing an ID card system, a PIN system, or biometric fingerprints.
The district felt ID cards and PINs were more logistically challenging, said Laura Kepler, the district's coordinator of child-nutrition services. And fingerprint scanning provided the most secure identification of each student, said Ms. Kepler.
"You know it's the right student," she said.
Although parents in Akron were allowed to opt out of the program, almost all agreed to let their children use the fingerprint scanner to pay for school lunches, Ms. Kepler said.
The school district is now looking into upgrading or revamping the system, she said, and some schools now have PIN pads instead of the scanners because the custom biometric technology created for the district is no longer being made.
"The technology today is far greater," she said. The current system requires its own server and technological upkeep, which may not be as beneficial if it's just being used in the lunchroom, she speculated.
And while some argue that fingerprint scanners could be a faster alternative than PIN pads or ID cards to get students through lunch lines, Ms. Kepler said they are about equivalent in speed.
Biometric fingerprint scanning is being used in other districts around the country, including some schools in the 677,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District. Use of the technology in K-12 schools is not widespread, although it appears to be growing.
A 2011 survey of nearly 1,300 districts by the School Nutrition Association, based in National Harbor, Md., found that about 5 percent of districts responding reported using biometrics as their point-of-sale software, up from 1.2 percent in 2005.
Nearly 80 percent of the districts said they were using PIN pads or student ID numbers, and 30 percent reported using student ID cards, the survey found. (Some districts use multiple methods, which is why the total percentage exceeds 100.)
Reassurance on Privacy
Jedd Flowers, the communications director for the Cabell County schools, said in a statement that the county and the state of West Virginia have policies that prohibit the sharing of confidential student information. He also reassured the community that no actual fingerprints were being taken.
"In utilizing biometric input, we are not gathering any student information we don't already have as part of our students' records," Mr. Flowers said. "The software we use is proprietary and does not record a fingerprint. It creates five points based on a fingerprint that only means something to the proprietary software.
"Even if that information was shared, it wouldn't mean anything to anyone else," he continued. "The scanner is just another form of input. It's no different than typing a number in the keyboard or scanning a barcode on a student ID badge."
Mr. Flowers said his new laptop has the same biometric logon that allows him to touch the pad instead of logging in, creating a point of reference that the computer recognizes as him.
Vol. 31, Issue 11, Page 12Published in Print: November 9, 2011, as School Lunch Fingerprint Technology in Motion