The Pinellas County, Fla., school district is slated to become the first in the nation to track students riding on school buses with an electronic-fingerprint system that officials say will prevent students from boarding the wrong bus and help foster a safer transportation system.
The school board of the 113,000-student district, which includes St. Petersburg, unanimously approved the proposal last month. The $2 million system is to be in place by fall.
Laidlaw Education Services, a Naperville, Ill.—based company that is the country’s largest private contractor for student transportation, won the contract to outfit the district’s 750 buses with an electronic device that will capture the fingerprints of students for identification purposes. Laidlaw is teaming up with GeoSpatial Technologies, of Santa Ana, Calif., to provide a “global positioning system” for the district that tracks the location of buses using satellite technology.
No one at the March 9 school board vote approving the purchases raised the potential for privacy concerns with the system. District officials said they did not see any potential for abuse with the identification devices.
Terry Palmer, the district’s transportation director, said the system would capture enough information to create a code unique to each student, but would not provide a fingerprint, in a traditional sense, that could be reproduced. The information is to be stored in an encrypted, binary file.
“I couldn’t provide the fingerprints if my life depended on it,” Mr. Palmer said in an interview last week. Parents of the approximately 45,000 students who ride buses in Pinellas County each day can choose to keep their children out of the electronic tracking system.
“It seems like a bit of overkill,” said Jay Stanley, the communications director for the Technology and Liberty Program of the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City. “There is a good and bad use of all technology, and a lot of times the devil is in the details. We need to be sensitive to the risks of bringing our children up in an environment that acclimates them to the trappings of constant surveillance.”
‘New Level of Safety’
At the start of the 2004-05 school year, students will be asked to register their thumbprint with the district. When they board a bus, students will press their thumbs to an electronic screen, which after a few seconds will tell the bus driver whether a student is registered to be on the bus.
If a student is not registered, the driver can call the dispatch center and help the student find the correct bus.
Stephen Marrier, the director of marketing for GeoSpatial Technologies, said he expects more districts to begin seeing the benefits of both the fingerprinting and GPS technology, in the same way that videocameras on school buses have become common over the past decade.
“It really takes the school district to an entire new level of safety,” Mr. Marrier argued. “The district can go right into the computer, put in a name and identification number, and see where every student got on and off.”
The global positioning system approved by the Pinellas County school board, Mr. Palmer added, will help the district better monitor the location of buses as they travel and identify those that are not following a designated route.
Along with the touted safety advantages, officials expect the system to save the district between $500,000 and $900,000 a year by streamlining bus routes and driving times. It will provide “real time” feedback from drivers that will help planners design better routes, eliminating stops that are not being used.
The Pinellas County district implemented an intradistrict school choice plan four years ago as part of a settlement in a desegregation case, and the number of students who rely on its school buses is growing.
“Kids are moving all around,” Mr. Palmer said. “Making sure kids are getting on the right bus is how we got started with this idea. If we can improve driver efficiency by 15 minutes a day, that’s worth about $440,000. Little changes make a big difference.”
Jane Gallucci, the president of the school board, remembered a near-tragic school bus accident in the district last fall when she cast her vote for the tracking system. In that incident, a school bus driver had a heart attack while driving on a busy highway.
“Had we not had an aide on that bus, we would have had some serious consequences,” Ms. Gallucci said. “It highlighted for us the safety issue. We need to know where the buses are all at all times.”