By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Florida lawmakers on Tuesday gave unanimous preliminary approval to bills seeking to forbid school districts from collecting biometric data on students.
The issue is being taken up after parents were outraged in 2013 to find students' eyes were being scanned as a condition of boarding school buses in central Florida's Polk County School District.
Stanley Convergent Security Solutions, a part of Connecticut-based Stanley Black & Decker, captured the iris images of 750 students in a pilot project before it was stopped, according to the local Lakeland Ledger newspaper.
Neither parents nor the school superintendent were informed of the project before its launch, the newspaper reported.
The company's website calls iris scans second only to DNA in providing certain identification.
Republican Representative Jake Raburn told the Florida House choice and innovation panel that security breaches at Target and other retailers have underscored the need for a ban on collecting biometric data on students.
"There's always the potential for a leak," he said. "If they don't collect it, there's no way anyone can steal it."
An identical bill by Republican Senator Dorothy Hukill sailed through the Senate education committee. The bills are supported by Governor Rick Scott's office and the state Department of Education, and will be back on the agenda when the Republican-controlled state legislature convenes for its annual 60-day session on March 4.
Florida's Pinellas County School District in 2011 was the site of another biometric pilot project, which used palm scans to check students into the school lunch lines.
Art Dunham, director of food services for Pinellas County, said palm scans make lunch lines move faster to help make sure students get time to eat their food.
The district leads the nation in the use of palm scanners, which are employed in 50 districts in 10 states, with more pilot projects under way, according to Kent Schrock, spokesman for the Fujitsu Frontech, the Japanese manufacturer.
The palm scanners look at the pattern of veins under the skin which Shrock said are unique like fingerprints. He said some school districts prefer palm scans to other biometric devices, because they are not part of law enforcement databases.
Biometric data is covered under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which provides parents certain rights over their children's school records, but has not received attention so far from states, said Khaliah Barnes, director of the student privacy project at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research group based in Washington, D.C.
Recent changes in the rules have allowed more access to student information by third parties, Barnes said, a trend that her group is fighting as the first step in losing control of student information.
Biometric information typically is held by third-party contractors, Barnes said, suggesting schools should use lower-tech alternatives.
"It's very hard to explain why in a K-12 context when that information is so sensitive ... that schools need biometric information," she said.
(Editing by David Adams, Ken Wills and Mohammad Zargham)