Turlock schools quit lunch fingerprinting

TURLOCK -- School district officials are discontinuing a controversial fingerprinting program not because of privacy concerns, but for long lunch lines.

Feeling the lunchtime crunch, school administrators installed fingerprint scanners at the end of lines throughout the district. Rather than using a swipe card, entering a pin or paying cash, students simply could press their index finger into an infrared scanner, which matched their print to a prepaid account.

The problem? It's not that simple.

"It was a huge experiment and we're just not happy with the results," said Scott Soiseth, food services director for Turlock Unified School District. "We have three to five seconds to get every student through the lunch line. It took two, three times to get a finger scanned. That really slows down the line."

Using the wrong finger or a dirty finger or not applying the right amount of pressure made things slower than the tried-and-true swipe card, Soiseth said.

Privacy advocates couldn't be happier.

Last week, the use of finger scanners at Turlock schools was discussed at the annual meeting of the Stanislaus County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

"I'm tickled," Fred Herman, chapter chairman, said Thursday.

Fingerprint scanning in schools "could set a nasty precedent," he said.

"We do not know if Homeland Security or the CIA or FBI could someday subpoena these records without even telling the parents," Herman said. "This is in the purview of the Patriot Act. We don't want second-graders in the FBI files forever. It sounds alarmist, but it's very real."

School officials and several companies in the fingerprint scanner market have said personal information is encrypted and complete fingerprints aren't stored. Instead, each unique print is given a number that's tied to a database, in this case, of school lunch accounts.

Phyllis Gerstenfeld, chair- woman of the criminal justice department at California State University, Stanislaus, doesn't buy it. She has a daughter at Walnut Elementary Education Center, Turlock Unified School District's newest school.

"Storing matching points is all that's really needed, that's how the (Department of Justice) system works," she said.

It is used in Oakdale and throughout the country, and the system is secure, Soiseth said. Privacy concerns have popped up in most cases, but after the technology is fully understood by parents, those concerns usually evaporate, he said.

Either way, it's not for Turlock, he said.

"The ACLU didn't really have any bearing," Soiseth said. "It just wasn't making our lunches quicker."

It is making lunches quicker in Oakdale, said Ray Martinez, director of food services for the Oakdale Joint Unified School District.

Sierra View Elementary School has been scanning fingers since 2005 with few, if any, privacy complaints and no backups in lunch lines, he said. A handful of families opted out the first year, but this year everyone is on board.

"We're not going to push it on anyone," Martinez said. "It's an option. We don't want to make anyone uncomfortable."

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391.