Carroll County school officials have discontinued use of a cafeteria checkout system with palm-scan technology after protests from parents who said the system violated their children's privacy.
School Superintendent Stephen Guthrie announced his decision Wednesday to halt use of the system, called PalmSecure, and to ask officials to look at other options. His announcement came after a meeting with County Commissioner Doug Howard, who cited concerns among parents who worried about possible security breaches.
"It was not my intent to defy the community," Guthrie said. "As superintendent, it's been my mission to develop good quality education for the students. Anything that detracts for that mission should be under review."
PalmSecure identifies distinctive palm and vein patterns in the hand and converts that image into an encrypted algorithm, which links to a student's account. The system has been put in place at 10 Carroll schools since early October.
In announcing his decision, Guthrie said he wanted to avoid alienating what he called a "core group" of a few community members who raised the concerns.
He said he believes the system is secure.
When the system was first implemented, school officials sent opt-out forms and letters detailing PalmSecure home with children, but scanned the child's biometric information before receiving the forms back. Ten percent of parents chose to opt out of the program, Guthrie said.
In a letter dated Tuesday, the Rutherford Institute, an organization that provides free legal services to people who feel their constitutional rights have been threatened, called on Guthrie to review the palm-scan system.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute and a constitutional lawyer, said that biometric scans are often found in schools and hospitals, but that problems likely arose in Carroll because the school system initiated the program without consulting parents.
"Most of the cases we deal with in school systems are parents who were not allowed to consent," he said. "It boils down to a parent that didn't know about it and, all of a sudden, here it is."
Howard said he also asked Guthrie to review using an opt-in process.
"When you're dealing with anything with private information and kids, I much prefer an opt-in," he said.
Guthrie said parents must opt out of most school system practices. "The only things we typically opt in to are things like field trips," he said. "We felt the scans fell under normal school process."
PalmSecure was put in place to circulate students faster through lunch lines and to eliminate errors in cash transactions, supervisor of food services Karen Sarno said in October.
School officials are researching alternatives. An electronic point-of-sale system that allows parents to pre-pay for their students' lunches will remain, but will likely be supplemented by a personal identification number or card-scanning device.
Sarno said earlier that the school system investigated these devices but were concerned about children losing their cards or forgetting their identification numbers.
Rose Mattavi, principal at Taneytown Elementary, said she received 20 opt-out forms from the school's 450 students.
She added that the system helped increase efficiency of the lunch line at Taneytown, which was one of the first schools where it was implemented.
"It's just easy. They hold their hand over it, and they don't have to remember a number or anything," she said.
It would have cost the school district an estimated $300,000 to implement the system in all 43 schools and the central office, but only 10 units have been purchased and installed. Once school officials decide on an alternative, those will be replaced.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun