Friday, January 4, 2013

How Pinellas County beat biometrics and took back school lunch

BTC - I followed up with Adrian Wyllie, a broadcaster for the 1787 network, about his son's experience with biometric requirements at a Florida elementary school.  This is his version of the story. 
For at least the past two years, Palm Harbor Middle School (PHMS) and other Pinellas County, Florida schools have given parents the option of having a pre-paid lunch account for students.  Parents deposit funds into the account, and the cost of their child's lunch is debited each day.  The student authorizes by a debit from this account by placing their hand on a palm scanner at the register.  The palm scanner uses biometric data to identify the student and withdraw from their account. 
My son had opted out of the program last year, and paid for his lunch with cash every day, or he told the cashier with his name so that his account could be debited.  He had never allowed his biometric data to be entered into the database.  He continued to pay cash or provide his name for his lunch at the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year. 

On about the third day of the new school year, my son attempted to purchase his lunch as usual.  The lunchroom cashier said he could no longer give his name to have his account debited.  He had to use the palm scanner.  He politely refused.  Upon his refusal to have his palm scanned, the cashier called the lunchroom manager.  The manager pressured my son to use the scanner, but he continued to refuse, offering instead to pay cash.   

After several attempts to convince him to scan his palm, she eventually gave him an ultimatum.  She said that since he already had his lunch tray, he would be stealing from the school if he did not submit to the palm scan.  She made this threat even though he repeatedly offered to return his lunch tray, or to pay for his lunch in cash. 

The had left him no other option.  They wouldn't accept cash.  They wouldn't allow him to return his lunch.  He was worried that he would be guilty of theft if he continued to refuse the palm scan.  Being an honor roll student with excellent conduct, he wasn't used to this kind of accusation.  So he finally submitted and scanned his palm into the database. 

That evening, he told me about what happened.  Obviously, I was furious.  I contacted the Pinellas County School Board and filed a formal bullying complaint against the lunchroom personnel.  I chose to file a bullying complaint because I knew it would receive immediate attention, and the actions of the lunch staff clearly met the criteria. 

The following day, the PHMS principal, Victoria Hawkins, called me and apologized profusely.  She was extremely understanding and accommodating.  She said that she had reprimanded the lunchroom personnel and re-trained them on the optional nature of the palm scanners.  She also said that she contacted the school board IT department, and my son's biometric information has been deleted from the database.   I was also informed that all Pinellas County school cafeteria staff were being re-trained on the voluntary nature of the palm scan program. 

The following week, my son reported that they had removed all of the palm scanners from the cafeteria and they were no longer using them at all at PHMS.   The pre-paid lunch program is still in effect, but the cashiers simply ask the student for their name now, and enter the student's name into the computer to debit from their account.