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Have your thumb ready to ride the bus

Pinellas schools ponder a $2-million system that would require students to use their thumbprint to get on the bus.

By NORA KOCH
Published February 28, 2004

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The Pinellas school system is ready to approve a new technology that uses student fingerprints to keep track of who is riding school buses.

Beginning in the fall, the fingerprint system would identify students as they board and leave. The goal is to ensure they are getting on the right bus and getting off at the right stop.

School officials say the $2-million project will save money and dramatically improve safety for students, whose fingerprints will serve as authorization to board and disembark.

If the School Board approves the proposal March 9, Pinellas will become one of four Florida school districts in the process of implementing Global Positioning Systems with a student-tracking system.

"This is Management 101 in transportation. Now we will have good, factual information that we can use in a very timely manner to make our services as good as humanly possible," said Terry Palmer, the district's transportation director.

But some parents and national organizations are concerned about the implications of fingerprinting 45,000 bus riders, some as young as 5.

"This is probably a really good idea, but in my mind it was just this terrible feeling, like they're watching my kids wherever they go," said Nancy McKibben, mother of three teenagers at Palm Harbor University High School and president of the school's PTSA.

Critics say programs of this nature raise significant privacy concerns and teach students at a young age to accept what amounts to a "Big Brother" surveillance society.

"We are conditioning these children to understand that they have no personal space, no personal privacy," said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Technology and Liberty.

The School Board has given administrators a preliminary go-ahead, which allowed the district to put the proposal out for bid. Last week, the district sent schools a brief outline of the project to include in school newsletters.

"If my child was in elementary school, I would welcome this with open arms and say, "please, please, tell me my kid got on the bus and got off the bus,"' said School Board chairwoman Jane Gallucci.

Gallucci said the district plans to cover the system's $2-million price tag with savings from construction projects that came in under budget and from sources that are separate from monies for classroom costs and teacher salaries.

Superintendent Howard Hinesely said the district also plans to apply for a federal Homeland Security grant that could reimburse some of the cost.

In three years, the expense should be recouped through efficiency savings, Palmer said.

The state reimburses local districts for some transportation costs, based on the number of students riding the bus. With more accurate computerized accounting, Palmer said, the district will get more money from the state.

Palmer said the closer monitoring of bus routes and timetables will reduce driver costs by shaving 15 minutes per day per driver. That will lead to at least $432,000 in annual savings, he said.

School bus safety has been getting more attention since a January 2002 bus hijacking in Pennsylvania. A Berks County school bus carrying 13 students was overtaken by a man with a rifle, and found in Maryland six hours later when the hijacker turned himself into police.

Now districts want to keep track of where students are at all times. Many schools require identification cards with sensors or bar codes to log students in and out of schools, and some have started using similar devices on school buses.

Fingerprints, which can't be loaned out or traded between students, are the latest bus identification tool.

Under the Pinellas plan, the district's nearly 700 buses will be equipped with GPS transponders, student identification devices and communications equipment and software.

The system will allow the district to monitor the fleet's safety performance, watching out for speeding, railroad crossing procedures, stops and compliance with route assignments. The program also will provide detailed data on how many students use specific stops, and the efficiency of routes, particularly useful as the district adapts to the choice program.

Michelle Bianco of St. Petersburg put her three young children on a bus for the first time last week. Until then, she had been driving Travis, a kindergartener, and Trevor and Erika, third- and fourth-graders, to Jamerson Elementary School.

"I was a nervous wreck," she said. "I even followed the bus to school the first day."

Bianco felt she had reason to worry. On its morning trip, the bus drops off children at another elementary school before taking the rest to Jamerson. There have been times when kids have gotten off at the wrong school and a school official has had to go pick them up.

She thinks a fingerprint system would be a good idea. Not only would it prevent children from getting lost, she said she has no qualms about her children's privacy being compromised.

"I wouldn't be concerned about a privacy issue, because I know the School Board is very concerned about not letting anyone get hold of that information," she said.

School officials and the software company, GeoSpatial Technologies Inc., said student data will be safe. Fingerprints will be encrypted into a binary number, which will be linked to the student's school ID number. The bus database will be password protected, and kept separate from the database that holds a student's personal information.

But the privacy implications of such programs are "nightmarish," said Erich Wasserman, executive director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group in Philadelphia that advocates for civil liberties in schools and colleges.

"All over the country you have all sorts of infringements on privacy for the under-18 crowd. And those are time and time again substantiated for public safety," Wasserman said. "It's protection run amok."

But school officials say the safety benefits of the project far outweigh concerns about civil liberties.

"I think that's just another safety factor so we know the child was on the bus and got off the bus," said School Board member Lee Benjamin, who supports the project but said he wants to consider it further.

- Staff writer Donna Winchester and Times researchers Caryn Baird and Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Nora Koch can be reached at 727 771-4304 or nkoch@sptimes.com

RIDING THE BUS

Pinellas schools are expected to send parents this explanation of the proposed system for school bus security:

"Next year our school system will install a new Global Positioning System (GPS) that will make riding the bus safer, more efficient and will provide parents with a new sense of security about their child riding the bus.

The new system (similar to what is already being used in private automobiles today) will allow the transportation department to know if a student is riding the bus, if he or she is riding the right bus, whether the student got on or off the bus at the right location and, in the event a child doesn't come home, where the last stop was when the child left the bus.

If a bus is late for pick up or drop off of students, transportation will be able to pinpoint the exact location of the bus and be able to keep schools and parents informed about arrival times. In addition, if a bus has an emergency, there is a driver "panic button" that will immediately alert the dispatchers to the problem and allow them to get assistance to the driver quicker.

By using a simple thumb printing process, each student will be accounted for on each bus in the district and that information will allow us to monitor the location of each child during the ride to and from school.

While the primary use of the GPS system will be to ensure the safety of our students, the system also will provide valuable information regarding the performance of our buses on the road and the efficiency of our drivers. It will also assist us in providing data required by the state for purposes of financial reporting for the students who ride our buses every day.

We are excited about this new system and hope that you will be too. Additional information will be coming out soon to schools and parents as we prepare for next school year."

WHAT ARE THEY SAYING?

"This is Management 101 in transportation: Now we will have good, factual information that we can use in a very timely manner to make our services as good as humanly possible,'' said Terry Palmer, Pinellas school district transportation director.

"This is probably a really good idea, but in my mind it was just this terrible feeling, like they're watching my kids wherever they go,'' said Nancy McKibben, mother of three teenagers at Palm Harbor University High School, and president of the school's PTSA.

"We are conditioning these children to understand that they have no personal space, no personal privacy,'' said Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Technology and Liberty.

"If my child was in elementary school I would welcome this with open arms and say "please, please, tell me my kid got on the bus and got off the bus,'?'' said School Board Chairwoman Jane Gallucci.

A primer on prints

Q: Does the Pinellas school system want to thumbprint all 112,000 students?

A: No. It wants to thumbprint the 45,000 students who ride buses. The prints will be encrypted into a database and tied to the student's identification number. The system will be used only to track students as they get on and off school buses.

Q: Who will have access to the thumbprints? Will they be public records?

A: Only school district employees managing the databases will have access to the prints and student data. The prints will not be public records.

Q: What if I refuse to have my children thumbprinted? Can they still ride a bus?

A: Yes. While parents can opt out, the district intends to explain to reluctant parents that there is no risk to printing their children. The database holding the prints will be password-protected and kept separate from another district database that holds student information.

Q: What happens to the thumbprints if the student drops out, transfers out of the district or graduates?

A: The prints will be deleted from the system.

- Source: Pinellas County Schools.

[Last modified February 28, 2004, 07:15:16]


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