- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

ROME, Ga. (AP) — It takes more than a lunch lady to run today’s public school cafeteria. It takes a logistics specialist.

Take West End Elementary in Rome, where two classrooms of students charge into the lunchroom every five minutes, load their trays up with corn dogs, steak nuggets and fresh fruit, and pile into cashier Lydia Galego’s line.

Miss Galego, though, has a new tool to help her handle the lunch rush. As each student quietly files up to her computer, they press an index finger up to a reader and then trot off to their tables. Their names flash across Miss Galego’s touch-screen computer monitor and each of their prepaid accounts are automatically debited $1.10.

Colleges and high schools have used biometrics scanners, which measure the swirls and ridges of a fingerprint but not the image itself, to stop nonstudents from sneaking into dining halls and gyms. Now elementary schools are joining in, hoping that biometric scanners are a good way to keep lines moving.

“It’s not science fiction stuff any more,” said Tovah LaDier, managing director of the Washington-based International Biometric Industry Association. “It’s real and people like it.”

Jay Fry, chief executive officer of Pennsylvania-based IdentiMetrics, said elementary school districts are one of his biometric company’s fastest growing markets.

“Elementary schools had for a long time shied away from these systems, because of the size of the finger,” said Mr. Fry, a former middle school principal. New devices now can identify a child as young as 4 years old, he said. “The kid can just go up and put the finger on the scanner.”

The new use of the technology concerns privacy advocates.

“The question right now isn’t about security. It’s about why they’re using biometrics for children to pay for their school lunches,” said Melissa Ngo of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“There’s no reason to do that,” she said. “Biometrics technology is being used to keep nuclear weapons secret. It shouldn’t be used to pay for elementary school students’ lunches.”

In Rome, administrators sent letters notifying parents of the district’s 5,300 students about the program, explaining the data is not linked to the Internet. Thirty-five students opted out.

“The main thing you need to do with parents is explain what it is and what it’s not,” School Superintendent Gayland Cooper said. “If you can explain it, then hopefully you’ll allay those fears.”

The scanners, a pilot program that started this school year in Rome’s 10 schools, have cut West End’s lunch wait in half.

“They’re moving through the lines faster and getting more time to eat,” says Doylene Burns, the cafeteria’s manager. “That’s what we’re all aiming for — more time for them to eat.”

Administrators try to ease hygiene concerns by cleaning scanners with anti-bacterial wipes after each class and stressing that grade school students wash their hands before each meal. They also say it makes it easier to identify children than a Social Security number or numeric code that’s apt to be forgotten or overheard.

“There’s no way to beat the system,” Mr. Cooper said.

Count fourth-grader Savannah Findley a fan. “Numbers are difficult to remember,” she said before jumping in line. “You just have to put your finger on there now.”

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