New Jersey school district testing security system

Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2003

PLUMSTED, N.J. The biggest security breach in recent memory in this small central New Jersey school district happened when a parent forgot to sign in at the office before delivering cupcakes to a child's classroom.

So it was somewhat of a surprise when the Plumsted district's three schools became the test site for a cutting-edge eye recognition security system designed to keep out strangers.

We're an appealing test site because we are a small community where everybody knows everybody,'' said Michael Dean, the schools' technology coordinator. We're taking a rural town and asking, What is John Q. Public's perception of this technology? What is people's comfort level is this easy to use?'''

The iris scanning technology will be used to identify employees and those authorized to pick up children in the 1,800-student district. Anyone else will have to show ID before being allowed in. Students themselves will never been screened.

In the wake of shootings and child abductions, schools nationwide have been taking steps to tighten security, from installing metal detectors and video cameras to hiring extra guards.

But iris scanning has never been used in a school, according to Lina Page, director of marketing for Iridian Technologies. The company holds patents on the iris recognition software being used here.

Iris recognition systems use a video camera to record the colored ring around the eye's pupil. More accurate than fingerprints and other biometric markers, iris scanning is considered a nearly foolproof way of identifying people because markings in the iris are unique to each person and do not change as people age.

Plumsted was among some 400 school districts that applied for a grant from the Justice Department for the iris recognition technology. The federal agency is building a database on school security and is using Plumsted as its first data collection.

The unique thing about our grant is we picked a technology that no one else was doing,'' said Phil Meara, assistant schools superintendent.

The technology has a wide range of applications. Officials at the Charlotte, N.C., airport recently installed iris recognition systems to identify employees, pilots and flight attendants. And United Nations workers have used it to keep track of Afghani refugees and prevent them from claiming more than their share of aid packages.

Biometrics expert Paul Robertson of TruSecure Corp. in Herndon, Va., said he sees potential benefit in the iris scanning system but questions if it's the best technology for controlling entry to schools.

He cited privacy concerns on behalf of people whose personal data is stored in the schools' system and cautioned against overreliance on a single technology.

More than 300 parents and nearly all the district's teachers and staff volunteered for Plumsted's two-month pilot project that began earlier this month. Pictures were taken of their eyes, and the images were stored in a computer database.

If the iris image in the database matches that of the person seeking entry to the school, the school door automatically unlocks. Members of the project's control group, meanwhile, must show identification and be buzzed into the school by a staffer.

Wendy Arzt, whose two daughters attend New Egypt Elementary School, lauded the technology as noninvasive and easy to use.

We're fortunate to live in a small, safe town. But in this day and age, you can't take safety for granted,'' said Arzt, a substitute teacher taking part in the study.

After the study ends, the Maryland consulting firm 21st Century Solutions will evaluate whether the iris scanning was useful in the schools and conduct surveys to determine people's attitudes about the technology, said Craig Uchida, a researcher with the firm.

The Plumsted board of education will then make the final decision about whether to use the technology.



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