Et tu, School Board? An Essay on Fingerprinting of School Volunteers (Ritchey)

By Eva L. Ritchey
Published March 1, 2002, in the Prime Time magazine (North Carolina)

Note: Eva Ritchey is a citizen activist living in Hendersonville, N.C. She has been involved in education, environmental, and transportation issues for many years.

It was not one of our proudest moments. Groups of mothers with young toddlers bundled against a cold January wind struggled up the school administration stairs. Inside they joined senior volunteers waiting endlessly in a narrow hallway to be . appreciated? . honored? No, mugged and fingerprinted. Upon exiting, their facial expressions and reactions belied the spin congenially furthered by both the Times-News and School Superintendent Dr. Burnham, "We've had one complaint since the time we've started implementing this," he said. There may be a few people who are not appreciative, but for the most part we've had good support from volunteers and parents."

Too bad Dr. Burnham and School Board Chair Mr. Bazzle weren't standing on the sidewalk to interview these "supportive" volunteers. They would have discovered, as I did, that fully a third of those submitting were angered at this new layer of post 9/11 security measures. They were not amused by this unnecessary invasion of personal privacy. Why didn't they protest? School house blackmail.

These caring citizens were told that either they submit to fingerprinting or they would lose their volunteer privileges at their children and grandchildren's schools. Why? The School Board and Administration had failed to implement a personnel policy that prevented a failed school employee, Laurence McKisson, from transferring from school to school thereby allowing him to molest numerous children at numerous schools. In order to cover their lack of policy, they ordered the fingerprinting of all volunteers even though there had not been a single incident of child molestation by a volunteer reported in Henderson County Schools. The southern disposition "to go along and get along" coupled with the fear of losing a cherished privilege assured that the majority of volunteers would report.

Everywhere you turn these days, from the phone call that "may be monitored to assure quality service" to internet "cookies," our personal right to privacy is being eroded. What "might happen" has turned into a field day for the "Good Idea Police." Technology has made universal eavesdropping an everyday occurrence with new and ever more invasive techniques just around the corner.

According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC), a nonprofit consumer information and advocacy organization formed in 1992, the latest tool on the security scene is biometrics. Biometrics is the term used for all the ways we humans can be identified by unique aspects of our bodies. These identifiers include fingerprints, vein dimensions, our iris designs, blood vessels on our retinas, body odor, the way that we walk, our voices, the geometry of our faces, and of course our DNA. Is there very much left? Facial biometrics is especially worrisome to privacy and civil liberties advocates because of its ability to identify individuals in large crowds. As PRC points out, "It is not difficult to envision how such systems could be used to identify, for example individuals who participate in public demonstrations against unpopular government actions. The "chilling effect" that widespread use of facial biometrics systems could engender is very disturbing." (

Disturbing when you consider how much of our privacy has already been peeled away by existing technology. A review of the case histories listed on PRC's web site is enough to make anyone dive for the covers. My personal favorite is the fax containing sensitive medical information on a patient about to be released from a mental health facility that was sent in error to, of all places, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. When they tried to reach the sending party to correct the mistake, no one was home but the answering machine. As we disconnect ourselves ever further from personal contact, the opportunity for error and abuse is becoming greater.

However, human error is not what worries proponents of the First and Fourth Amendments of the Bill of Rights. We fear that "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizure, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue but upon probable cause.(Fourth Amendment)" is being seriously threatened. The rush to create a national ID card complete with thumbprint in the name of soon to be canonized "national security" resurrects uncomfortable memories to a similar policy in Nazi Germany.

As numerous groups are pointing out, it isn't the individual data bases - social security, medical, employee, military - that are so worrisome, but the inevitable event that all these data bases will be merged into a giant Big Brother to watch over a nation of walking silicon chips. Do we really want to surrender our freedom for a Brave New World? The majority of Americans do not. A 1997 Money Magazine Poll revealed that 74% of the public are somewhat or very concerned about threats to their privacy; 29% have experienced a serious invasion of their financial or medical information; and 65% are more worried about privacy invasion that they were five years ago.

Yet, many citizens are willing to surrender their precious personal freedoms for dubious results. One writer to the editor said, "If Laurence McKisson had been fingerprinted a background check done on him, it would have come back clear. Mr. McKisson had no criminal record . Studies show that 70% of all pedophiles do no jail or prison time." (Times News 2-22-02)

Irving Kasner, a dedicated volunteer who protested the fingerprinting policy said in a written statement to the Board, ". a program which defies logic and common sense . I presented some very pertinent data that showed that septuagenarian volunteers were not the clear and present danger to the children in the schools, or anywhere else for that matter . The current proposal for criminal background investigations for prospective school volunteers is a red herring. Its aim is to reduce pressure from a vocal segment of the community . It is readily apparent from the data that I have presented, that the majority of child abuse perpetuators are parents . Clearly, this [policy] is nonsense. There is no probable cause for either a parent or volunteer criminal background check. As a prospective school volunteer, I will not willingly submit myself to a witch hunt."

Sadly, a lot of well meaning people were willing to submit. Perhaps they would have chosen another path had they known and taken to heart these words of Benjamin Franklin,

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

Fingerprinting our school volunteers hasn't given us safety. It has just drifted us a little farther from freedom.