Some Pennsylvania schools are testing a fingerprinting program that lets pupils pay for chicken nuggets, sloppy joes, pizza, and other cafeteria delicacies without ever carrying cash.

If the program proves successful, the little ridges on index fingers eventually could make school lunch money and lunch-line bullies things of the past.

“It’s certainly a lot faster,” said Linda Kelly, cafeteria manager at Welsh Valley Middle School, about 10 miles from Philadelphia.

The program doesn’t use a complete fingerprint; instead, it relies on a computer program to match 27 mapped points on a finger. Even so, the technology remains controversial.

The Penn Cambria School District, about 75 miles east of Pittsburgh, began the program in August 1999 and plans to use it in all five of its schools by next year. To avoid controversy, administrators never used the word “fingerprint.”

“We say ‘finger-image’ or ‘finger-picture,'” said Milton Miller, Penn Cambria’s director of food services.

The program has sped up the high school lunch line, which has been growing with the student population.

The other benefits? “One, no lost [ID] cards; two, no one can access another person’s account with a lost PIN number; three, it’s good for the parents. The money is in the account, and they know that the money is only being spent on school lunches,” Miller said.

Another advantage of the program, which also is used in the Tussey Mountain School District in central Pennsylvania, is that students who receive free and reduced-price lunches aren’t embarrassed by having their names checked off a list or by turning in lunch tickets while their classmates pay cash in cafeteria lines.

“At 16 years old, the last thing you want to be known as is poor,” said Mitch Johnson, president of Food Service Solutions, the Altoona-based firm that installed the program. To the best of his knowledge, he said, the system is unique to Pennsylvania.

Johnson said the program, which will cost between $4,000 and $5,000 per lunch lane, was developed to help schools comply with a federal law that says schools can’t overtly identify those receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

“That’s one of the biggest benefits,” said David Magill, the Lower Merion School District superintendent. “They won’t be stigmatized.”

His growing district just wants to find the most efficient system that will get a couple of hundred children through lunch lines in 40 minutes with time to eat, Magill said.

“What we’re really looking for is the system that works the best,” he said. Because the program is in the testing phase, the district is not paying for it.

Some cafeteria customers still have doubts about whether fingerprinting is the right program.

Ian Murry, 13, bypassed the fingerprint system and went straight for his wallet during lunch at Welsh Valley Middle School. “I don’t like it,” Murry said. “It doesn’t always work. Then the line gets slower.”

Tawanda Worthy, on the other hand, said she approved of the program, new at her school this year. “You don’t have to bring lunch money, so somebody can’t take it,” she said.

So far, a minority of the middle school’s 700 children have declined to be fingerprinted. “They think the FBI’s going to get them or something,” said Kelly, the cafeteria manager.

Magill said he hasn’t heard any negative input from parents regarding the program. He knows fingerprinting children could raise a few eyebrows, however, and he rejects Orwellian theories.

“We’re not using fingerprints for anything other than a quick way of identifying the student in the cafeteria line,” he said.

A high school in Minnesota has been beta-testing fingerprint technology in its library to automate and speed up the book check-out process. The fingerprint reader at Eagan High School doesn’t keep a record of the entire fingerprint, just the five points of identification that it stores as an algorithm.

Because the system doesn’t record a complete fingerprint, school officials are not concerned about students’ privacy. But in the state of Michigan, privacy concerns have made it against the law for schools to use electronic fingerprinting.

School districts in Michigan can’t use electronic fingerprinting technology to identify a child for school-related purposes, Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm ruled Dec. 12 in response to a query from state Sen. Ken Sikkema, R-Grandville.

Sikkema said a constituent of his was interested in the finger-imaging technology, and he asked if it were allowed in schools.

Granholm ruled that the state’s Child Identification and Protection Act of 1985 prohibits a school district from using electronic fingerprinting technology for electronic imaging or finger scanning.

She noted the law is designed to safeguard the privacy of children, and it generally prohibits governmental units from fingerprinting a child. She said finger imaging “would result in multiple violations of the act.”

“Although the act does not explicitly address electronic fingerprint imaging technology, it is clear that it was enacted to generally prohibit schools and other governmental units from fingerprinting a child,” Granholm said in her opinion.

The act does permit children to be fingerprinted if authorized by a parent or guardian in case a child becomes a runaway or is missing, if the child is arrested, if the fingerprinting is required by court order, or with the parent or guardian’s permission to aid in a specific criminal investigation.

Sikkema said he agreed with Granholm’s ruling, and there is no move to change the law and permit such technology in the state’s schools.

Links:

Penn Cambria School District
http://www.pcam.org

Food Service Solutions
http://www.foodserve.com

Eagan High School
http://www.schoolextra.com/eaganhs

Michigan Attorney General’s Office
http://www.ag.state.mi.us