Oct 31 2006

Biometrics Goes to School

Educators have turned to fingerprint scanning and other biometric technologies to improve security, take class attendance, and speed up checkouts in cafeterias and libraries.

GRANADA HILLS CHARTER HIGH School’s teachers and administrators no longer worry about forgetting their computer passwords. All they have to do is swipe a finger on their notebook computers and they’re logged in.

The IT staff at the Granada Hills, Calif., school is taking advantage of fingerprint-scanning technology that’s built into the school’s new notebook PCs. The biometric technology gives teachers and some administrators and staff members easier access to their computers and better protection for sensitive data, such as tests and quizzes, says Ely Jaramillo, the school’s network manager.

“Security is really important to us,” says Jaramillo. “Unfortunately, we still have teachers using simple passwords like ‘12345.’ With simple passwords, students can easily remember them and potentially compromise the system. Our data and network are much more secure with fingerprint technology.”

Biometrics is a field of technology that measures and analyzes people’s physical and behavioral characteristics to verify and authenticate their identities. Fingerprint scanning is the most popular technology, followed by face recognition, according to the International Biometric Group (IBG), a New York-based biometrics consulting firm. Other biometric technologies scan eye retinas and irises, measure hands, and analyze people’s voices and signatures.

Cutting-edge schools are testing or deploying biometrics to improve data security and student safety and to speed up school processes. The Ontario-Montclair School District in Ontario, Calif., has been testing a fingerprint biometric system to makes sure students get off school buses at the right stops. Administrators at Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C., have installed fingerprint biometrics in the cafeteria and library, speeding the lunch payment and book checkout processes.

The Don Estridge High Tech Middle School, in Boca Raton, Fla., will soon install hand-measuring biometric technology in the cafeteria, the library and the medical office where nurses dispense medicine, as well as in every classroom to take attendance. By using biometrics to take attendance, teachers don’t have to waste time taking a roll call.

Because class attendance information will be saved automatically on a school database, employees will no longer have to manually type in the data. “It’s faster, more reliable and accurate,” says Principal Debra Johnson.

Worldwide sales of biometric technology are expected to grow from $2.1 billion in 2006 to $5.7 billion by 2010, says Philip Youn, an IBG senior consultant. However, privacy rights organizations have raised concerns and have questioned how safe biometric data is from hackers. But educators interviewed say they have run into few objections from parents.

Cost is also a factor. The Freehold Borough School District in Freehold, N.J., recently spent about $370,000 from a Department of Justice grant to purchase iris scanning machines, PCs, digital cameras, printers and a server to screen adults before they enter school buildings.

Another potential pitfall is the fact that biometrics is an emerging market, which can result in deployment challenges.


Despite potential drawbacks, many schools have implemented successful biometrics programs. At Granada Hills, Jaramillo purchased about 200 notebook PCs with built-in fingerprint readers for teachers, school administrators and staffers. The biometric technology added an extra couple of hundred dollars to the cost of each PC, but the extra security is worth it, he says.

“Students come into my office daily because they forget their user names and passwords, so I log onto my computer using the fingerprint technology,” Jaramillo explains. “As they’re hovering over me while I get their information, I have no worries about my password being compromised.”

At Wilson School District in Westlawn, Pa., fingerprint biometrics has made the lunch payment process much faster and more efficient, says Patricia Anthony, coordinator, Food Service. Five years ago, Anthony needed to overhaul her district’s cafeteria point-of-sale system. At the time, cafeteria employees used electronic cash registers for students who paid in cash, but they used pen and paper to keep track of students whose parents prepaid their lunches or were part of the free- or reduced-lunch program.

Each student gave cafeteria employees a four-digit PIN number, but students often forgot their numbers. Over time, the cashiers memorized each child’s PIN, but if a cashier was out, the cafeteria lines would bog down because the replacement cashier didn’t know the PIN numbers.

In 2001, Anthony convened a committee made up of two principals, the district’s finance director, the IT director, a school board member and herself, to come up with a solution. They considered options including a debit card and PIN number, but eventually settled on finger biometric technology because of its ease of use.

The new point-of-sale system features a touch-screen computer monitor with a small fingerprint scanner attached. The payment process — from the time students put their fingers on the scanners until the cashiers approve the transaction — takes about 12 seconds. When transactions are completed, the information is immediately sent to a server at district headquarters.

After a successful two-and-a-half-month pilot project at one school, Anthony proposed the technology to the school board, which approved the $175,000 purchase of 26 point-of-sale computers and fingerprint scanners for 10 of the district’s 11 schools. The funding came from the district’s Food Service program budget and did not affect classroom spending.


Anticipating a public outcry over privacy, Wilson School District sent memos home to explain the technology. Anthony met with parents and senior citizens groups, explaining that the equipment doesn’t take a digital image of students’ fingers. When the equipment scans a finger, it converts the data into a series of numbers, equivalent to a bar code. The ID number is then tied to the child’s account, she says.

“After explaining that, it took the threat factor out,” Anthony says. She also made the fingerprint-scanning system a voluntary program. Overall, about 70 percent of students use it.

The Ontario-Montclair School District, which uses similar technology, also received no complaints for its plan to add biometrics to school buses, according to David Walthall, the district’s director of transportation. “The Big Brother issue can be overcome if you make student safety the primary focus,” he explains.

During a recent 18-month pilot in two schools, each bus was outfitted with a Global Positioning System unit and a personal digital assistant to scan students’ fingers. When students entered and exited the bus, they scanned their fingers. If they got off at the right stop, the PDA would display a green light on the screen; if they tried to get off at the wrong stop, it would show a red light.

“Parents loved the fact that we could take better care of their kids,” Walthall says. “Kids, especially kindergarteners and first-graders, have a tendency to get off the bus at the wrong stop.”

Anthony says the biometric system is worth every penny the Wilson School District spends. Not only does it speed up the food lines and automate the accounting process, it also provides more accurate records and better accountability. That’s important because the district is part of the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced meals for low-income students. “We have to maintain very accurate records on a monthly basis to get reimbursed by the state and federal government,” she says.

At Strom Thurmond High School, Principal Greg Thompson purchased three finger-scanning systems for the cafeteria and one for the library for $5,000 and an annual software fee of $250. In the past, some students used classmates’ ID numbers to receive free or reduced lunches, but the biometric technology stopped that.

Like any technology, biometrics has some problems. Occasionally, fingerprint systems won’t be able to read students’ fingerprints or will misidentify students. One potential cause is that children’s fingerprints aren’t fully developed, says Walthall of Ontario-Montclair School District.

Heat is another factor. If a child’s index finger is cold, there might not be enough heat to transfer an image. Rubbing the finger usually solves the problem, Walthall says.

Anthony hasn’t had any problems at Wilson. The biometric system allows her to adjust the sensitivity of finger scans to give more accurate readings.

Ontario-Montclair had a different problem. After successfully testing a biometric system for its school buses, the district planned to deploy it districtwide this year. But the engineer for the software firm who worked on the project left, Walthall says. Without a replacement engineer, the project is on hold, but the district hopes to find a new vendor and restart the project.

“The technology works great, but it’s important to work with a company that can see a project through,” Walthall says.

Wylie Wong is a technology writer in Phoenix.


Here are six suggestions on implementing biometric technology in schools:

1. Create a diverse committee made up of stakeholders — such as principals and members of the IT and finance departments — to study the project.

2. Pilot the technology to make sure it works and then embark on an educational and marketing campaign to get buy-in.

3. Allay concerns over privacy rights by explaining the technology’s benefits. Some finger-scanning devices don’t make digital copies of fingerprints, but turn the information into a series of numbers to identify students.

4. Purchase from vendors with a proven track record.

5. During deployment, account for the time it takes to register every student’s fingerprint.

6. For finger-scanning machines, use the index finger for best accuracy. Scanning thumbs is harder and less precise.