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Mt. Abe considers biometric system

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By CYRUS LEVESQUE

BRISTOL — As Mount Abraham Union High School considers upgrading the aging cash register system for its school lunch program, a biometric identification system is one option being considered.

Advocates say the finger-scanning system would make getting school lunch quicker and easier for students but downplayed any concerns around student privacy.

According to Nancy Curtis, MAUHS director of food service, the cash registers now used were purchased in 1987. “We are a big school, we really should have a computerized point-of-sale system,” she said.

MAUHS Principal Paulette Bogan presented options for upgrading the cash registers to the MAUHS board on May 16. Curtis researched the options available and recommended that the school adopt the Lunchbyte Systems Nutrikids terminals with biometric ID pads.

“It’s a much more efficient system than selling tickets here at the office or having students pay cash,” Bogan said.

The cost to the school could vary greatly depending on whether it receives two possible grants. According to Bogan, the Lunchbyte system would cost between $11,000 and $12,000. The school has also applied for a $10,000 grant from the state of Vermont and a $10,000 federal grant, but it is unlikely the school would receive both, she said.

Some money has already been budgeted. The 2006-2007 school district budget included $5,000 intended for a new system.

Two other possible means of identifying students are also being considered: account cards that are swiped on a card reader, or personal identification numbers (PINs) that students remember and enter into a keypad.

Under the current system, students either pay for lunch with cash or buy lunch tickets in advance. With an electronic point-of-sale system students and parents would still have the option of using cash, but the default would be for parents to pay into a debit account that students tap when they get a lunch.

If the district adopts the biometric ID system Curtis proposed, a student would be entered into the system by having his or her finger scanned by a sensor. The software plots 27 different points on the fingerprint and uses those points to generate a unique number assigned to the student’s account.

Later, when the student accesses the account to pay for lunch, they press their index finger on a pad in the cafeteria. The software analyzes the image of that finger and matches it to the number stored.

According to Bogan, it could not be used to identify students by fingerprint.

She explained at the meeting that the software does not store an image of the fingerprints, deleting them once the unique number is generated. The fingerprint technology used by police looks at a different set of points on the finger, and the number the Lunchbyte technology generates could not be used to reconstruct an image of the fingerprint.

Curtis recommended using a system with biometric ID because unlike a system that uses an account card or a PIN, a student cannot lose his or her finger or lend it to a friend or have it be stolen.

The board was scheduled to send a mailing home to parents last week. It plans to make a decision regarding the new system at a June 6 meeting, but at the May 16 meeting board members seemed open to the idea as long as parents were notified.

According to Bogan, they have not yet received any feedback from parents except for board members. “The parents on the board say it would be a really efficient system,” she said.

However, such systems have raised concerns in other places. An attempt to use a similar system in Michigan was blocked by Attorney General Jennifer Granholm on the grounds that it conflicted with the state’s Child Identification and Protection Act. The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed disagreement with some biometric technologies saying that even if a particular system itself is used innocently, it creates a greater risk of future abuse.

The Lunchbyte Nutrikids system is used by 14 schools or districts in Vermont, according to Bogan. Some of those schools use biometric ID, including Essex High School and several others in the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union, and others use cards or other identification methods.

The MAUHS board will meet Tuesday, June 6, at the school library.

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