A unique security system that features iris-recognition technology soon will be tested in one New Jersey school district as part of an $293,000 experiment funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The technology, called IrisAccess, will provide positive identification of teachers and some parents using a scanner to match the unique shades and patterns found in the colored part of human pupils with coded images stored in the school system’s databank.

Iridian IrisAccessNot to be confused with retinal scanning—a laser-based system that scans the area behind the eye for blood vessels and other intricacies—iris recognition is an image-based approach that captures patterns located on the eye itself, said Tarvinder Sembhi, director of product management for Iridian Technologies Inc., the Moorestown, N.J., company that manufactures the device.

Already the technology has been used to provide tighter security measures across parts of the Canadian border, in prisons, and a number of national airports, but this marks the first time the system will be tested in a school environment, the company said.

The Plumsted, N.J., Board of Education agreed Oct. 21 to test the system for six months, starting in January, and then decide whether it should be made permanent.

According to Phil Meara, the district’s assistant superintendent, select parents and all staff members throughout the district will be given the option to participate in the program, which will place IrisAccess scanners at critical entry and exit points throughout the district’s schools.

For teachers, the high-tech machines will replace a districtwide swipe-card system, which Meara said was insufficient and proved difficult to manage.

Under the new arrangement, teachers who wish to gain access to a locked door must stand in front of the reader, wait a few seconds for the system to match their iris to the images stored in the database, then—if approved—gain entry.

The school district also will test a similar approach on parents at the elementary level. According to Meara, the district will ask for parent volunteers to participate in a trial run of the “Teacher-Parent Authorization Security System,” or T-PASS. This approach will require parents or guardians to prove their identity by way of an IrisAccess scanner before being allowed to sign their children out of school early for dentist appointments and other commitments.

The district’s previous parental identification process consisted of a signature and photo ID, measures Meara said were anything but foolproof. “The parents want a sure thing. They want to know that their children are only being released to the right people,” he said.

If it’s imposters parents are worried about, Iridian officials say schools would be hard-pressed to find a more efficient identification system anywhere. According to Lina Page, who heads up the company’s marketing efforts, there are approximately 247 unique data points that can be used for identification within the human iris, compared with only 80 data points used for a fingerprint analysis.

But a high-tech identification system so accurate it makes fingerprinting look passe is sure to raise concerns among privacy advocates. To calm such fears, Meara said IrisAccess scanners will not be the only way to access any of the district’s schools. Parents and teachers who do not wish to have their irises coded and stored in the school system’s databank will have the option of being buzzed into the building by security or front-office personnel, he said.

So far, Meara said the district has no plans to require students to use the security measure. In fact, the technology won’t even be turned on until children have arrived for the day, he said. But the school system will be working with a group of software programmers throughout the course of its six-month trial to determine how else the technology might be deployed.

“As an administrator, there always is this altruistic side of you that sees the possibility to make things better,” he said. “You just want things to be as safe as possible.”

Of course, while safety is the key issue, cost is another a major concern. While the Justice Department has said it will foot the bill for schools in Plumsted, it has not made the same promise to other school districts nationwide.

And the scanners aren’t exactly cheap. Iridian says the systems vary in price from a couple hundred dollars to more than $2,000 a piece. The wall-mounted units to be used in Plumsted, for example, would cost upwards of $2,000, Sembhi estimated.

According to Meara, Plumsted plans to use the six-moth trial to determine whether the technology is even worth installing within schools at all. He said the evaluation will focus primarily on four points: effectiveness, feasibility, cost, and convenience.

“This will continue to ensure the safety of our children, and we will contribute to a body of knowledge that currently doesn’t exist,” Meara told The Times of Trenton.

School officials said the data collected through the system would be kept confidential and will be destroyed if the board decides to discontinue the program.


Plumsted Township School District

Iridian Technologies