Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Huntsville Schools Supe: NSA Call Led To Monitoring Students’ Online Activity

Casey WardynskiA call from the National Security Agency warning of a threat against faculty members allegedly prompted city school officials in Huntsville, Alabama to begin secretly monitoring students’ online activity.

The Huntsville Times reports Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski said the district began spying on students’ social media activity after receiving a call from the NSA about a Huntsville student making violent threats against an assistant principal and two teachers on Facebook. School officials then searched the student’s car and found a large knife.

Wardynski said the incident motivated district officials to launch Students Against Fear (SAFe), although students were not involved or even aware of the secret monitoring program. Neither the school board nor the parents who elected its members approved its implementation.

Since January, a team of three school security officers has been monitoring student posts on social media sites including Facebook, Twitter and Reddit.

“Very often we find unfortunately that young people have evil intentions which they express in public places like Reddit and Facebook and Twitter,” Wardynski, a former army colonel who was appointed district superintendent in 2011, told WHNT. “They provide video of what they’ve already done, they provide pictures of themselves with weapons.”

If Wardynski’s assertion that district officials were alerted to a potential student threat by the NSA is true, it raises the disturbing possibility that the agency is spying on American children. Al Lankford, a longtime district security officer, corroborated Wardynski’s claim, telling the Huntsville Times that he was the one who answered the NSA phone call.

Even if Wardynski and Lankford are telling the truth, Huntsville school officials have been running what is effectively a spy ring targeting their own students.

NSA denies ever calling anyone at Huntsville City Schools.

“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,” NSA public affairs specialist Vanee Vines said in a Monday email to the Huntsville Times.

Vines also said the NSA deals with foreign intelligence matters and that it “does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs.”

Wardynski doubled down, telling the Times that “there was a foreign connection.” He claimed a Huntsville student posted an online threat while chatting on the Internet with a group that included a Yemeni national.

Gangs, threats of violence and suicide threats are the three main areas of SAFe’s focus, Wardynski said. The superintendent claimed the city used SAFe to break up the local Wolfpack gang and expel its members from school.

Asked by the Times if SAFe is used to search for evidence of student sex, drug or alcohol use, Wardynski said, “None of that.”

“Times being as they are we take action to make sure that things planned outside of schools, addressed in a public place outside of schools, don’t come inside the schools and result in a situation like Columbine or Sandy Hook or anything like that,” Wardynski explained to WHNT.

Huntsville isn’t the only place where students’ online activity is monitored. In Glendale, California, Geo Listening, a private company, snoops on students’ social media. According to its website:

“Geo Listening’s unique monitoring service will process, analyze and report the adverse social media from publicly available student posts… We align our reporting criteria with existing school district procedures and board policy as they relate to student conduct and safety.”

A bill approved by the California Assembly and awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature requires schools to notify parents when they monitor students, to allow students to see what’s being monitored, and force schools to destroy all the information after the student leaves the district.

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