Lawmakers to consider banning biometrics in schools

Polk County parents were apoplectic last year when they discovered the school district had been scanning the irises of students’ eyes without parental permission.

The controversial practice might 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 fingerprints, hands, eyes and the voice. It would affect the Pinellas County school district, which allows schools to scan the palms of students’ hands instead of accepting cash in the cafeteria, and school systems that use 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 this month. “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.”

Broward school officials said there is no district-wide use of biometrics.

The measure being considered by the Florida Legislature is part of a larger bill meant to address concerns over 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 the age of data breaches like the one plaguing Target Corp., parents are apprehensive about security and privacy.

“I’m very concerned any time personal information is collected,” said Mindy Gould, the legislation chair for the Florida PTA. “There is nothing to convince me that this data would be secure, and that it wouldn’t be released to private vendors.”

In addition to banning biometric data collection, the proposal specifies that parents must 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 would not 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, R-Trinity, who chairs the Senate Education Committee. “But that data should not be identifiable at an individual level. We need to make sure we have proper safeguards to ensure that individual, identifiable student data is not shared.”

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 the new benchmarks will not lead to data mining.

Still, in an effort to ease misgivings and enlist conservative support is in his bid for reelection, Gov. Rick Scott has made safeguarding student information among his top policy priorities this year. Earlier this month, Scott 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.

The Seminole County school district stopped its much-scrutinized use of using fingerprint scanners in school cafeterias because “it wasn’t that helpful,” spokesman Michael Lawrence said.

The concept has been less controversial in Pinellas County, where all middle and high schools, and some elementary schools, use palm scanners to prevent backups in the lunch line.

School district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez Parra said the district had 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.”

Miami-Dade does not use biometric technology, and has no immediate plans to do so, according to a School Board memo from December.

But earlier this month, board members approved a series of rules to govern any future biometric programs. Among them: parents would have to provide written consent for their child’s biometric data to be collected, and the information could not be shared with outside entities.

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.”