School fingerprints pupils to monitor absenteeism

STUDENTS were fingerprinted yesterday as a Limerick secondary school introduced its own database in a hi-tech bid to monitor absenteeism.

But the Data Protection Commission is already investigating the school’s new security scanning system, styled on the popular TV crime series CSI.

The principal of Salesian College at Copsewood, Pallaskenry, however, emphasised that the school did not have an absenteeism problem.

School head Paddy O’Neill said: “We just brought in this system to make enrolling more efficient. It will also save five hours a week office work.”

But the Data Protection Commission is examining the system on the basis it may be “excessive”.

A spokesman said the commissioner, Billy Hawkes, was investigating the matter as it may be deemed to be excessive. The agency is examining whether a “less intrusive system” could be put in place at the school.

The college informed parents in a newsletter during the summer of the fingerprinting but the Data Protection Commission said each parent and student must give signed consent.

Meanwhile, students attending school yesterday had their fingerprints taken. The index finger and thumb of either hand were entered into a school data base, matched with names and individual identity numbers.

On arrival each morning and after lunch, students will place a finger on one of two scanners which will identify them and speedily mark them present.

Mr O’Neill said: “A lot of schools have a swipe card system but a student can lose a card. And a swipe card can be passed to another person to enable the holder to be marked present, although absent. We just brought in this system to make enrolling more efficient.”

The principal added: “We get a printout each morning of students who are late or absent and that is posted in the staff room. This enables teachers to do a cross-reference with the people they have marked present and those on the list.

“If a child is late or absent, a text will be sent home to inform the parent that the child is either late or absent that day.

“This is followed up with a signed note from the parent which is put back through the system and rather than marking a child absent for no reason, the child is marked absent and a reason given by the parents.”

Mr O’Neill said they had, in a newsletter, notified all parents during the summer holidays of the proposed new system.

“So far, we have had a very positive response. We did have one reservation that people thought, was this linked to a crime data base? — which it is not. It is totally confidential to the school. We have no links to any other organisations.”

Mr O’Neill said the fingerprint system was the same as that used in the CSI series. He said the school had not considered the system being used to assist gardaí in any investigation. That, he said, would have to be considered by the school’s board of management.

The Data Protection Commission spokesman said: “We would want to see whether this system is excessive and what is the nature of the school that requires this high-level security.”

The spokesman noted that another school which introduced a similar system two years ago had since withdrawn it after being contacted by the commission.

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