Puyallup schools pull lunch line palm scanners

Technology: School board authorized $38,000 purchase; one parent feels alienated

of the HeraldNovember 27, 2013 

When Christina Allen discovered Kalles Junior High School would be introducing palm scanner technology to increase meal line speeds during lunch time, she was upset.

Allen said she was taken off-guard as she read a letter sent home to parents on Nov. 14. The letter stated parents had one business day to let the school know whether or not their students would comply.

Allen said she still didn’t have an answer last week, so she joined several other parents to voice her concern during the Nov. 18 school board meeting.

The Puyallup School District decided the following day to pull the palm scanners from two pilot programs that were in progress. One was at Stahl Junior High School and the other at Wildwood Park Elementary.

“As the result of a communication problem, we are not going to be introducing the palm scanners this fall until more research is done,” said Brian Fox, spokesperson for the school district. “If parents want to learn more about the technology, the school board of directors will be hearing a presentation (from the district’s Food and Nutrition Services Department) at the Dec. 2 school board meeting.”

The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at Ballou Junior High.

“(This technology) has not been used in our area,” Fox said. “It needs to be better understood by parents before it’s implemented in the lunch line. If it will be implemented in the lunch line, we want to be able to understand the research better.”

The technology, known as the Fujitsu PalmSecure Scanner, was dubbed the “James Bond” scanner by students who were part of the pilot testing, according to the letter sent home with students from Kalles.

In August, high schools in Georgia’s Muscogee County School District became some of the first in the United States to introduce the technology. The palm scanner takes a high-resolution photograph of a student’s vein pattern under the skin. This photo is recorded and linked to the child’s meal account. When students come through the lunch line, they wave their hand over a black box, which scans the palm and links it to the child’s meal account.

Fox said the Puyallup School District’s board of directors approved authorization this past summer of a point-of-sale system upgrade for the lunch program across all 32 schools. The current technology is a keypad. Students enter their lunch account number, or they state their last name and staff members look up their account alphabetically, Fox said.

“(The point-of-sale system) was no longer supported by Microsoft XP, so it needed to be upgraded,” Fox said. “The school board authorized the purchase of a new system, and that included the ability to use either the keypad or the palm-scanner system.”

The school district purchased 71 palm scanners for $38,000 this fall. Its plan was to roll them out in all schools by the end of the academic year.

Staff members informed parents in the letter that was sent home that students’ use of the palm scanners was optional. But parents were instructed to direct their child to tell the school whether or not they wanted their child to use the technology.

Hunt Elementary Principal Rebecca Williams told parents who wished to opt out to “simply send a note to the office stating their wish to opt out of the palm reader scan.”

“I think my biggest issue is the opt-out issue,” Allen said. “When parents did become aware of it, several parents called Kalles to put their kids on an opt-out list, but there wasn’t an opt-out list for parents to get on. There was not a consent form to sign to get a scan of our child’s hands. The decision was left up to the child to say no.”

Allen said it’s inconsistent that the school district would call it a pilot program even though it purchased 71 scanners. If it was a trial, Allen suggested the district could buy a couple and try them out.

“The waste in our district is an issue,” she said. “The fact that there was no committee formed in researching this new technology is a huge concern. It feels like this decision was made on the sly so that parents could not challenge them or be involved.”

Reporter Andrew Fickes can be reached at 253-552-7001.

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