TALLAHASSEE — Polk County parents were apoplectic last year when they discovered that the school district had been scanning student irises without parent permission.
The controversial practice may soon be banned.
On Tuesday, state lawmakers will take up a proposal that would prohibit school districts from collecting biometric information, including the characteristics of an individual's fingerprints, hands, eyes and voice. It would affect the Pinellas County district, which allows schools to scan student palms instead of accepting cash in the cafeteria, and other school systems using fingerprint scanners.
"We've been able to get kids through a lunch line for decades," said state Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Port Orange Republican who brought the idea to the Florida Senate. "Why do we need to take their biometric information when we know there is the potential for identity theft?"
But the idea may meet resistance from local school boards, some of which want the flexibility to create their own policies.
"Biometrics is coming," said Miami-Dade School Board member Raquel Regalado, who spearheaded an effort to create a local biometrics policy. "It exists in the market. It will exist in our schools. It may end up being a viable way to ensure there isn't fraud."
The measure being considered by the Florida Legislature is part of a larger bill meant to address concerns about student data security.
For years, Florida schools have used student achievement information to drive decisions about teaching and learning. The state's system of data collection and use is considered one of the best in the country.
But in an age of data breaches such as the one plaguing Target Corp., parents are apprehensive about security and privacy.
"I'm very concerned anytime personal information is collected," said Mindy Gould, the legislation chairwoman for the Florida PTA.
In addition to banning biometric data collection, the proposal specifies that parents would have to be notified annually about their rights regarding education records, as already required by federal law.
The bill also prohibits districts from collecting information on the political affiliation, voting history or religious affiliation of a student, a student's parent or a student's sibling. And it clarifies that personally identifiable data won't go to the federal government unless required by federal law.
"There is a reason for the state to collect some (education) information, and there is a reason for that information to be shared with other states," said Sen. John Legg, a Trinity Republican who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. "But that data should not be identifiable at an individual level."
The bill serves a political purpose, too.
For months, conservative parents and tea party groups have raised concerns that the state will collect and share more identifiable student data as it transitions to the Florida Standards, the new education benchmarks based on the national Common Core State Standards.
State education officials insist that the new benchmarks will not lead to data mining.
Still, in an effort to ease misgivings and enlist conservative support in his bid for re-election, Gov. Rick Scott has made safeguarding student information among his top policy priorities this year. Scott has pledged his support for legislative proposals that would "make sure there is no unnecessary information collected from our students."
Biometric data has been a particularly touchy subject.
The Polk school system made national headlines when it began using retina scans to keep track of students traveling on school buses. The district sought parent permission only after the pilot program had begun at three schools.
Seminole County schools stopped their much-scrutinized use of fingerprint scanners in school cafeterias because "it wasn't that helpful," spokesman Michael Lawrence said.
The concept has been less controversial in Pinellas, where all middle and high schools, and some elementary schools, use palm scanners to prevent backups in lunch lines.
School district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said the district has provided parents with information and given students the ability to opt out.
"The biggest benefit of having this system is that it allows students more time to eat their lunch," Marquez Parra said. "That's what this is all about."
Legg, the Senate Education Committee chairman, said there is no need for school districts to collect biometric data.
"There have been isolated incidents where certain districts may have overstepped their bounds," he said. "It's time to set a clear policy."
Contact Kathleen McGrory at [email protected]erald.com.