Assured that student privacy would be protected, a Florida school board has approved a $2.26-million system to use children’s fingerprints to track their movements on and off school buses.

A division of Laidlaw International, the Illinois-based transit giant that owns Greyhound, was awarded the contract to outfit the Pinellas County Schools’ 750 buses with electronic devices that will identify students by their fingerprints beginning in the fall.

A spokeswoman for GeoSpatial Technologies, which is partnering with Laidlaw in the contract, said she believes the Pinellas fingerprinting system will be the first of its kind in the nation when it is installed.

Two other school districts, Leon County in Tallahassee and one in Anaheim, Calif., use a bus tracking system also created by the two companies, but it doesn’t including the fingerprint identification system. Other school systems have used fingerprint ID systems in their cafeterias, but not on school buses.

Pinellas officials said the purpose of the program is to ensure that students get on the right bus and get off at the right stop.

When the idea first was raised in February, some parents and civil-liberties groups said the proposal had a Big Brother quality that might threaten student privacy.

But district transportation director Terry Palmer says privacy concerns for students are unfounded, because the system does “not fingerprint them in a classic sense.”

It identifies enough points on a fingerprint to create a binary code unique to each student, he said. It does not create a visual image of a print, and the district cannot produce such an image or reproduce the binary code.

The information also will be protected by multiple passwords. Palmer said the district already handles a large amount of private information about students and could handle the new information “with absolutely no problem.”

And unlike student tracking systems that rely on bar-code, magnetic strip, or radio-frequency chip technologies, students won’t have to remember to bring anything. “The only thing kids aren’t going to forget is their thumb or forefinger,” Palmer said.

Families who still feel uncomfortable with the system can elect not to have their children participate.

Besides tracking students’ whereabouts, the system will use Global Positioning System technology to track the buses.

It will provide transportation officials with factual data for monitoring drivers, investigating claims of speeding and unsafe driving, and planning better routes.

“This allows us to know when buses are running on schedule and not on schedule,” Palmer said. “I don’t have to wait for schools to report that information to me. I can be proactive rather than reactive.”

When parents call asking where their children are, transportation officials will know instantly, Palmer continued. Before the new fingerprint tracking system, it took “literally an hour’s worth of phone calls, and then you are depending on the driver’s memory,” he said.

And if bus-related accidents happen, officials will know instantly which students are involved. “When you have a bus accident, even if it is minor, the first thing you need to know is what kids are on there,” Palmer said. “With this system, we will be able to do an inquiry directly to the bus and know immediately.”

Student counts required by the state will be more accurate, which could result in increased revenue, he said. “We will not rely on the driver to take attendance anymore. We’ve got some anecdotal evidence that there are some problems with drivers not taking good attendance. We have a hard time convincing drivers it’s important,” Palmer said.

The district will pay for the system using savings from construction and renovation projects, some of them dating several years back. Officials also said keeping better track of buses and bus drivers will allow the district to streamline routes and trim minutes off bus drivers’ days. All told, district officials estimate that between $500,000 and $900,000 can be saved each year in efficiencies.

See these related links:

Pinellas County Schools

GeoSpatial Technologies Inc.

Laidlaw International Inc.