Huntsville, AL- Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski acknowledged that the district has been monitoring students’ online activity on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit for the last 18 months. He described the surveillance as a preventative measure to keep violence from spilling into Huntsville schools, even though much of the activity being monitored is off of school property.
“We take action to make sure that things that get planned outside of schools and addressed in a public place outside of schools don’t come into the schools and result in a Columbine or Sandy Hook, or a situation like that,” Wardynski said in a press conference regarding the program.
The monitoring initiative is called “Students Against Fear” (SAFe), and it has been reported that the program has resulted in 20 disciplinary actions against students. On Hunstville’s school website, SAFe is described as “a proactive program of Huntsville City Schools Security Operations to help deter or eliminate violence and disruptive student misconduct in the schools, particularly student misconduct that may relate to weapons possession and gang activity.” There is no mention of online surveillance.
Wardynski said that he received a phone call from the NSA notifying him that a student had used Facebook to threaten a teacher. When the threat was investigated, school officials said that the student in question had a knife in his car. The student was then placed in an alternative education program.
Wardynski’s claim of receiving a phone call from the NSA has actually been disputed by the government agency itself. “The National Security Agency has no record that it passed any information to the Huntsville school district, and the description of what supposedly occurred is inconsistent with NSA’s practices,” said NSA public affairs specialist Vanee Vines.
Wardynski and school security officer Al Lankford claim otherwise. Lankford, who says he was the person who received the phone call, had written an email in May 2013 that “National Security from Washington, DC, called [redacted] to speak to the head administrator…”. Wardynski said that the call came from Washington, DC.
Regardless of whether the NSA indeed called a Huntsville school official, the district implemented the program, and some school board members had little to no knowledge of the program, compromising oversight of the monitoring. School board president David Blair said “I have known about the program for a while. “Casey [Wardynski] told all of us about it.”
However, school board member Mike Culbreath told AL.com that he hadn’t heard anything about the monitoring. “I don’t know that I’ve been notified yet,” he said. Other members of the school board also appear to be in the dark, including members Laurie McCaulley and Topper Birney, who told reporters last week they hadn’t heard about it. McCaulley later clarified on Wednesday that she had heard about the program but not its name. “I think it might have confused my fellow board members,” Blair said about the program. “If you had asked me about SAFe, I would have thought you were talking about the ‘Safe Schools’ hotline.”
Blair and McCaulley expressed worry about the program; not worry that the program had been kept secret, but that it is now made public and receiving a swarm of media attention. Blair said that if students know they’re being watched, they might refrain from posting intentions of violence.
McCaulley said that the program has had success in advising the district of students who might have brought harm in the school. Three students who posted photos of themselves with guns have since been expelled from school, and another has been expected to undergo counseling. “This is a program that works to save kids,” said McCaulley.