Florida School District Installs Fingerprint Scanners to Take Attendance

Gone are the days of a raised and hand and simple "Present." Now students in one school district must submit a fingerprint to be counted in morning roll call.

The Washington County school district in Florida has a little problem with inconsistent attendance. After weighing their options, school officials decided to place finger scanners at the entrance to Chipley High School, where incoming students are scanned in each morning. Because most kids in the district ride buses every day, and because keeping track of everyone in the halls is difficult, the system will be moved to select buses for a trial period to determine if it's a more efficient way to save time and to ensure students are accounted for from the time they arrive until they're dropped off at home.

The program has been in place for about two months, and so far, attendance is up--but not everyone is happy about it.

Identity theft

There are questions about the security of a device that reads a fingerprint, "which is a unique, identifiable piece of information," and then "stores it in a database, and links it to a name" (Kelly Hodgkins, Gizmodo). Being that the students are mostly minors, it's a legitimate concern, and one that Washington Co. Schools Superintendent Sandra Cook is quick to dismiss: There are only four or five points recorded in each scan, which are translated into a 60-digit passcode. "We can't go backwards with it. We can't turn around and take that number and recreate the points on a finger." (DailyMotion)


The scanners cost about $22,000. Per student, this breaks down to about $30 a year each, which is a problem for some parents, and an expense they say the school doesn't need. But Clay Dillow at PopSci thinks it'll all come out in the wash: "At $30 per student per year, the system isn’t necessarily cheap. But considering the uptick in attendance (which means more money from the state in many districts) and the inherent increase in accountability and student safety, it may well be worth the cost."


Even accounting for privacy, security and the cost, isn't it "kinda Orwellian that the school wants you to flash your fingerprint before you can learn"? And what does it say about the district schools? As Micheal Trei at DViCE comments, "it seems like a sad commentary if you need to treat students like prisoners to get them to attend."

But Superintendent Cook has no concerns. "When it's all said and done, we're going to find that this is going to be one of the most monumental things that Washington County has ever done," she says. And parents can always opt out by signing a waiver and having their children check in with a teacher each morning.

What do you think? Is it too "Big Brother" to ask students to scan a finger for attendance, or is this just an example of technology improving an inefficient process?


Image: pcstelcom.com

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I'm willing to bet that the increased attendance is not due to the use of fingerprint recognition technology as such - it's the back-end 'we will contact the parents if the child isn't present' stuff which does the trick. In other words, you don't actually need the biometrics at all, you could just enter the rollcall into a computer and have the system do its stuff from there. As a bonus, you get interpersonal contact with the teacher every morning.

Vmax says in his post, above, that there are alternatives options to biometrics, which presumably afford the same benefits. So why use fingerprints at all?

I would be interested to know: what are the health implications of hundreds of people all touching the same spot, one after the other, in a food consumption area (lunch scanning, mentioned above)? Are the units sanitised regularly?

Lastly, this is a relatively small, local scheme. What do you think the reaction would be if the government said that every child should now have their biometric data stored in a database? Maybe one, centrally administered database. Think how much time that would save - for example if they ever moved to a different part of the country. Why have lots of separate systems when you can have just one? Think of the benefits.

What about every adult too - why not? It would save time and money to scan everyone into a central database to avoid duplication in lots of smaller schemes. I wonder how well that would be received. I wonder.

What's the policy on disposal of the data when a child leaves school? Is their biometric data erased from the database? How about from the backups?

Vmax has said he won't respond to me, so perhaps someone else knows? Surely there is a detailed document out there, listing all the important points, which is given to parents before they decide whether they want their child enrolled in this scheme. Is that available online somewhere? Or does it exist at all?
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@Andrew: I am not a sales or marketing guy. I design and build the software. From a data standpoint, you are very close(within 100) of the student count. most schools get 5-8 stations that process 48 students/minute each at max load, running concurrently. The morning run averages 45 minutes. The stations have their own battery power systems in case of power drops. Generally if the school has no power at all they cancel classes. The biometric option is not the only option. Students can be entered by name, ID card, RF key FOB, or finger. Two fingers are enrolled in case they hurt one, and can pull up a student record in 1 second. The biometric was created for the lunch scanning. Since the module loads as part of the collector object, it can be use in all modes. The primary gain is not in staffing costs. The gain has been proven on decreased class cutting(60-80%) and increased attendance(up to 10%). So, in a nutshell; the teachers get more time to teach, students are more likely to be in class, and the admin staff can respond to students having problems in a more timely way.
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ted: No one has explained how this is better than roll call, other than that it places less work on the teachers. My analysis suggests it doesn't save much, if any time or money. It seems as well to place more responsibility on the students to be early enough to go through scans, but you (incorrectly, in my opinion) seem to say students cannot handle responsibility.

Most of the schools mentioned in this article are elementary schools, and the core classes by Florida's constitution must have no more than 25 students in them. If the teacher can't tell who the fake student is during a test then there's a much more serious problem.

This situation therefore has nothing to do with the types of exam taking you are talking about, with photo ID and fraudulent test writing, and those points are clearly irrelevant.

I've been in a number of malls which don't have cameras - your point is ... ? And in my high school I held it all day rather than use the open door toilets.

In any case, this isn't fully an issue of privacy. This is a question of benefits and costs. What does the school system gain with this, and what does it lose? Are there alternatives which are more beneficial? How do you judge the overall success? How does one judge if this is more an issue of "ooh, flashy new thing!" than good education?

Since you have thoughts on this topic: how is a biometric system better than the current manual system?
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Nick, I was responding to your assertion that you couldn't imagine why a parent would ever want to contact a child during school hours. Now you elaborate on that with "Well, how does this do any better than roll call?"

I think someone already addressed that point earlier, and I don't know what they're doing enough to debate it with you. I would say though, there's probably a little bit of psychology involved.

My point was that schools have an incredible responsibility: to look after children. In this litigious and incredibly paranoid and demanding world, if a parent comes looking for a kid, and that kid isn't in his/her seat learning, whose responsibility is it? Not the kid - he/she is a minor.

This hasn't been developed out of thin air. This was developed in response to a situation. Students in a lot of places have to produce photo ID to write exams, in order to prevent fraudulent test-writing (either by a friend or someone trying to make a buck). Essays are sold on the Internet. The response from the educational system is to tighten up security.

I've been in malls that have had cameras in their washrooms for years. In my high school (a number of years ago now), the second floor boys washroom had no doors on the toilets. There's privacy for you. The school could afford doors, but at some point in the past, they decided that it was preferable not to have doors on the toilets in that washroom. Loss of privacy is nothing new in schools.
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