Fort Lauderdale Looks to Integrate Biometrics in Schools

The kind of security found in airports, laboratories and other high-risk areas could soon be installed at a Fort Lauderdale school and might be considered at other Broward public schools.

Construction officials are meeting Wednesday with the security firm ADT about a system that would scan a student's palm or thumb to let them into the school and some classrooms.

The "biometric security" system could be installed as part of a $9 million tear-down and rebuilding project at Pine Ridge Alternative Center.

"We'll see how this goes," said Deputy Superintendent Mike Garretson, who oversees construction. "We could expand this to other alternative schools -- or even other new schools we are building."

It's unclear whether biometrics could ever be used at a large high school, but the school district could evaluate the technology at a small school such as Pine Ridge.

Pine Ridge Principal John Kelly wants to see the thumbprint technology used on school buses as well.

That way, the school would know when -- and if -- a child got on the school bus and when they were dropped off at home.

"A big problem at alternative schools is attendance," Kelly said. "If we can get a handle on that and get kids to go, we can improve test scores."

Pine Ridge, in southwest Fort Lauderdale, is for students in kindergarten through 12th grade who have chronic behavior problems or who have committed one-time offenses and have been expelled from regular schools.

It currently serves 125 students, but capacity will increase to 300 when the new school opens, possibly in late 2005.

The school district is experimenting with other technology as well. It plans to install speakers and wireless microphones in four new schools, including Pine Ridge. The sound systems will help students -- especially those near the back of the room -- hear everything the teacher says.

ADT's proposal for Pine Ridge includes a video camera setup that is more extensive than the hallway cameras found in most schools. Many classrooms for auto and art labs would have their own cameras, and the weight room would have two.

Individual classrooms also would have cameras that could be turned on for recording if a teacher felt there was a serious behavior problem.

Garretson doesn't know how much ADT's proposal will cost but said the money likely could be found in Pine Ridge's contingency budget or in the general construction fund.

Patrick Fiel, the public safety advisor for ADT, declined to discuss details of his firm's proposals until after a formal meeting with the school district.

Fiel did say the use of biometrics in public schools is extremely rare, but some Florida districts have researched ways to track students. Sarasota County has proposed having students use ID cards with a bar code when riding school buses to get a more accurate head count.

The Broward School Board has balked at installing metal detectors at its high schools, saying it would be too cumbersome to scrutinize as many as 4,000 students streaming onto campus each day.