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Posted on Wed, May. 28, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Students will scan for meals
Akron school board OKs fingerprint system

Beacon Journal staff writer

Akron students will be fingerprinted beginning this fall to identify them in school lunch lines.

After a lengthy debate, school board members voted 5-2 Tuesday to spend $700,000 on a controversial, modernized cafeteria system.

Board members Rebecca Heimbaugh and Mary Stormer voted ``no,'' mirroring the concerns of parents about the cost and privacy issue involved with fingerprinting students.

``I do not believe that any parent or any student has ever had the expectation that in order to go through the lunch line or to buy a cookie or carton of milk that they or their children would be requested to first be fingerprinted,'' said Heimbaugh, who says she will probably refuse to have her three children in the Akron schools fingerprinted.

This state-of-the art, futuristic technology is only being used in one other Ohio school district -- Garfield Heights.

The system will replace the meal-ticket method that has been used in Akron middle and high school cafeterias for nearly two decades. It will not be used -- at least initially -- in elementary schools.

Students' fingerprints will be put into a scanner that will make a template of binary numbers corresponding with the unique swirls and arches of each print. When students go through the lunch line, they will place their finger on a scanner that will identify them based on the stored template.

Designers of the system say the original fingerprints will be deleted.

School board members received numerous phone calls and e-mails from parents with privacy concerns about their children being fingerprinted. Those opposed to the system will have the option of having their children use an identification card.

Board members discussed the merits and drawbacks of the system for nearly 45 minutes before finally voting. Each member spoke, explaining the reasons for his or her vote.

Stormer called the system ``extravagant,'' especially because the district is facing further cuts in state funding.

``I think $700,000 is a lot of tax revenue -- from any source,'' she said.

The money for the system will come from the budget for Child Nutrition Services, a department that is self-sufficient. This department is funded with a combination of state and federal tax dollars and the money spent on school lunches.

Several school board members said they see the new system as an improvement over the current method. It will include new touch-screen registers, software, fingerprint imaging scanners, staff training and maintenance.

``I think we need to enter the 21st century,'' said board member Linda Kersker. ``We need to move forward and not backward.''

Kersker said the stored templates could not be used in the same way that police rely on fingerprints.

``I do not see this as much different than a photo ID,'' she said. ``It is simply more reliable.''

Board President Linda Omobien said the system will enable cafeteria workers to more easily track the number of free and reduced lunches, which they now accomplish by hand-counting meal tickets. She said this is ``ludicrous'' in modern times.

School leaders spent several years researching an alternative for the district's cafeteria system, which includes outdated cash registers that regularly break down. They looked at systems that use cards or personal identification numbers.

Debra Foulk, coordinator of the Akron schools' Child Nutrition Services, said these methods were less reliable and cost about the same as the one relying on fingerprints. She said children often lose cards -- just as they now misplace meal tickets -- and forget PINs.

The new system will be piloted in one Akron middle school -- that has not yet been chosen -- this fall. It will be phased into Akron's 17 other middle and high schools during the school year.

Raymond Vasvari, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said systems like the one adopted by Akron raise serious privacy issues. He said school leaders need to take steps to ensure that the fingerprint images don't end up in the wrong hands.

``The question remains -- is there information that would be useful to someone and how can you be sure this information is not shared?'' he said.

Board member Curtis Walker, who voted for the system, agreed that school leaders need to keep a close eye on the privacy concerns.

``We need to watch this carefully and make sure the issue of privacy does not hurt us in the end,'' he said.


Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or swarsmith@thebeaconjournal.com
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