New Jersey’s Freehold Borough School District has installed an iris-scanning security system in its three schools that allows parents, school staff, and others registered in the system to enter locked buildings by staring into a camera. The initiative is the second of its kind funded by the U.S. Department of Justice (JD), which is using the projects to study the feasibility of the technology in schools and to test the public’s reaction. The biometric equipment is similar to what the federal government has tested in its registered traveler program, which allows frequent flyers to avoid lines at airport security checkpoints. Similar devices also have been used at border crossings in the United Arab Emirates for about three years.

The equipment was developed and installed by a consortium of technology companies that include New Jersey firms Eyemetric Identity Systems of New Egypt and Iridian Technologies of Moorestown, as well as Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), which plans to market the devices to schools in the future. Officials at Eyemetric, which installed the cameras, said they believe Freehold is only the second school district in the nation to use such a system. Another was implemented in 2003 in the Plumsted Township, N.J., School District, a rural district located near Freehold. But as the price comes down and school security concerns rise, such devices could become more common.

Like Plumsted, which received $293,000 to install its system, Freehold used a $369,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research and development branch of JD, to buy, run, and test the iris-recognition system, which was developed by Iridian with software from other firms. The cameras were activated in late January.

Freehold has a high population of minority students. NIJ reportedly will use the pilot program to study minority perceptions of using the technology in a school setting, as well as its effectiveness to improve school safety and visitor management.

Besides opening the doors to registered users, the devices are tied to a computer system that helps the school record who has been in the building–sort of an electronic guest log. As an added feature, when a registered visitor checks in at the main office, he or she gets a quickly printed visitor badge that includes the visitor’s photograph.

Iris-recognition systems use a video camera to record the colored ring around the eye’s pupil. Markings in the iris are unique to each person.

The retail cost of the system remains much higher than buzzers, swipe-cards, and other security devices that schools commonly use. But unlike swipe-cards, irises can’t be lost or stolen–and unlike passwords, they can’t be forgotten.

Raymond Bolling, Eyemetric co-founder, said the suggested retail cost for a visitor management system is about $10,000. For unlocking doors, the cost is about $2,000 per camera and $3,000 for a controller for four locks. He said schools also would pay about 10 to 15 percent of the system cost each year for service, support, and updates.

Freehold Superintendent Phil Meara said the Plumsted pilot found that teachers and parents often held the door open for others as they entered the school, which allowed strangers to slip right in behind.

This new eye-scan system, however, catches strangers. Once the iris scanner permits an individual to enter the school, it monitors how many people pass through the door and sounds an alarm if others follow through unauthorized. In Freehold, the doors are unlocked before school, when students file in. When school starts, though, the iris-scanning system is put into use.

In its first week, about 300 people registered to use the voluntary system. Meara said there has not been talk of having students use the new security system, or of making registration mandatory for staff members. If staff members at Freehold’s Park Avenue Elementary School had any concerns about being tracked, they were outweighed by fears of attacks in schools or child-abductions.

“I think it’s great. I think it provides extra security for our children and for us, especially knowing what’s going on nowadays,” said Jane Esdaile, a teacher’s assistant at the school.