Puyallup schools turn thumbs down on lunch line palm scanners

Officials say they will study other options

Tacoma News TribuneDecember 2, 2013 

Contrite Puyallup School District officials told parents at a school board meeting Monday night that the district has stepped away from its experiment with hand scanners in school lunchrooms.

The scanners work by shining near-infrared light to illuminate the unique vein patterns in an individual’s palm. The touch-free technology, which has been used in schools in other parts of the country, employs numeric encryption to link to students’ pre-paid lunch money accounts in a separate database.

But after the scanners were placed in Wildwood Elementary and Stahl Junior High -- with plans to expand them districtwide -- complaints from parents began rolling in. Some objected to what they viewed as an invasion of student privacy. Others were creeped out by the concept that schools would be collecting biometric data from children -- even though school officials said the devices did not store a child’s “biometric footprint.”

Still other parents said they were angry that they learned about the scanners not from the district, but from news media reports.

“We failed at communication significantly on this,” said board president Chris Ihrig. “We got an ‘F’ on this one.”

“We apologize,” said Superintendent Tim Yeomans.

The school district has returned all the palm scanners to the company that sold them and obtained a full refund, district officials said. In addition, Yeomans said, any data collected during the experiment has been eliminated.

“There is no data at this point,” he said.

The district plans to regroup, look at other options and report back to the school board in the spring. One mom who addressed the board Monday suggested that the district include parents in that process.

“Get parents involved and see what their ideas are,” said Christina Allen.

Added dad Tim Snyder: “There has got to be other ways than scanning my kid to figure out who he is.”

His wife, Jeanna, pointed out that hackers had managed to bypass the new iPhone’s fingerprint security system shortly after it came out on the market.

“It’s concerning,” she said of the district’s abandoned scanner system. “If we put that information out there -- it’s data. It’s somewhere.”

Allen also said parents should be able to opt in to whatever new payment system the district decides to use, rather than asking those who dislike it to opt out.

“Everybody should have a choice,” she said, adding that parents should also be asked to sign a permission form.

Jonny Holmes told the board that in addition to privacy concerns, the palm scanners could have psychological ramifications: “I would prefer that my son be addressed by his name, not as a number and not a palm print.”

The district originally turned to the palm scanners because it needed to replace a 12-year-old computer-based payment system that relied on outdated software. Officials hoped the palm scanners would be easy for students to use and less subject to human error. They also hoped the system would speed up breakfast and lunch lines, allowing more time for students to eat and enjoy their meal breaks. The district’s meal program records an estimated 2 million transactions annually.

District communications director Brian Fox said that the scanners were only in place at Wildwood for a week. But he said at Stahl, where they operated for a month, the scanners saved between five and seven minutes during each 30-minute serving time.

Fox said that parents at Stahl and Wildwood had received e-mails and letters about the new scanner system. But he said some parents at those schools didn’t have complete information, while parents at other schools had no information. He said that whenever the district picks a new system, it will also develop a more effective communication plan for parents.

Board member Pat Donovan said he understands the need to eliminate lunch line bottlenecks. But he said would not support any future system that relies on biometric data. He said he assumes district staff will be able to come up with a better idea for increasing efficiency.

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