New law forces Pinellas to abandon time-saving palm scans in school lunch lines

Sixth-grader Aaliyah Jackson, 12, places her palm on a biometric scanner as she checks out in the lunch line at Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg last week. The Pinellas County School District has until next June to have a new system.
Sixth-grader Aaliyah Jackson, 12, places her palm on a biometric scanner as she checks out in the lunch line at Azalea Middle School in St. Petersburg last week. The Pinellas County School District has until next June to have a new system.
Published May 28, 2014

There is less time than there used to be for school lunch, and that is not an accident. Schools are shaving off minutes to gain classroom time as test scores increasingly determine their reputations.

But less time at lunch means less time to eat. So three years ago, the Pinellas County School District implemented a new system to cut down the time students spend in the lunch line. In short, they took pictures of students' palms.

Federal law requires schools to identify each student who receives lunch. The computerized system instantly converted the unique vein patterns in each student's hand to a string of numbers identifying the student and linking him to his meal account. Now it took only 2 seconds for a student to register for lunch, rather than the 34 seconds it took to enter a four-digit PIN code. The waiting lines in school cafeterias dropped by half.

But was the time saved for lunch worth introducing children as young as 11 to biometrics, the data harvesting of human characteristics and traits?

No, said the Florida Legislature. Earlier this month, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill forbidding schools from collecting scans of students' palms, eyes or fingerprints.

Now Pinellas must find a new way to track lunches, and also try to recover an estimated $300,000 the district invested in the biometric system.

Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, who proposed Senate Bill 188, "Education Data Privacy," said a number of factors prompted the legislation.

"You have privacy concerns, you have the concern of desensitizing children to giving up information," she said. "And then there's the issue of access: Who can access this information? Can it be breached? Can it be sold?"

Hukill said she first became aware of biometrics in schools when Polk County was caught last spring scanning students' irises when they boarded school buses without notifying parents. Polk stopped amid the outcry.

Then she found out about Pinellas' lunch program, and said she was appalled. "You don't need to be scanning kids to give them a sandwich," she said. Hukill spoke of scammers who target the elderly by telephone. Children are trusting like that and don't know what they're doing, she said.

Lynn Geist, the assistant director of food service for Pinellas schools, said that's not a fair take on Pinellas' system. Everyone was notified, she said, and the pictures of palms are immediately deleted. Nothing is stored, so nothing could be breached.

"We actually had more fraud when we had PIN pads," Geist said. "People would share their number, or a child would be in line behind them and see what their PIN was."

Pinellas has spent about $200,000 for equipment, software and licenses since the palm scanning system was installed in 2011, Geist said. The district spent an additional $100,000 on installation, training and enrolling students.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, worked with Hukill to pass an amendment giving Pinellas until next June to phase in a replacement system. Geist said the district likely will return to PIN pads by next spring, but she did not have an estimate of the cost.

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After that, the district will try to sell the old system, she said.

In response to Hukill's bill, Geist traveled to Tallahassee to testify before the Senate Education Committee. She spoke of how students now wait 5 minutes in the lunch line instead of 10. She told them that elementary school students, the youngest children, weren't involved in the palm scanning because their hands were too small.

But alarmed by the Polk incident and reading headlines about the security breach at Target stores, the Legislature put the brakes on Pinellas' time-saving system.

The final vote in the Florida House: 113 yeas, 1 nay. Scott signed the measure into law four weeks later.

"I think it was something the governor really wanted," Geist said of the prohibition. "They were very nice to us, but I don't think they were interested in lunch lines."

Lisa Gartner can be reached at Follow @lisagartner on Twitter.