HSV school district defends social media monitoring program

The district says they've monitored students' Facebook pages since the start of the year, saying a security officer got a call from the NSA about a student threat to a teacher.(Source: WAFF)
The district says they've monitored students' Facebook pages since the start of the year, saying a security officer got a call from the NSA about a student threat to a teacher.(Source: WAFF)

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - The Huntsville school district is defending a social media monitoring program that most knew nothing about until a public statement Wednesday.

According to the district, they've been monitoring students' Facebook pages and other sites since the start of the year. They said a school security officer got a call from the National Security Agency about a student threatening to injure a teacher.

The superintendent said the NSA was interested because someone from a foreign country was involved in the conversation.

That incident happened back in May of last year.

Since then, that student has been disciplined, along with 20 others in some regard, since the start of the social media monitoring program in Jan. 2014.

Many of those students were expelled and enrolled at alternative schools in the area.

The program is called SAFE, or Students Against Fear.

"Children are very brazen about the information they put on Facebook. It is stunning to watch a video of a child, who is 13, do a beatdown on a 12-year-old." said Huntsville City Schools Superintendent, Dr. Casey Wardynski. "The child's comrades have submachine guns and handfuls of $100 bills while making threats. When you see that as a superintendent, you don't let that come in your schools. It poses a threat to your school order, discipline, and safety."

The superintendent said he didn't mention the program to students and parents because it would undermine what the program was used for.

Some parents have concerns that the program crosses the line when it comes to first amendment rights of students.

Beyond heading off a possible massacre, legal analyst Mark McDaniel said social media can provide valuable evidence.

"We're being able to prove things now that we couldn't have proved 15 years ago, because people put things out there on Facebook," said McDaniel.

He added it's legal and constitutional for lawyers, parents, police, teachers, to look it up.

In numerous cases in court, McDaniel has seen social media searches challenged as an infringement of privacy. And every time, the courts have found there's nothing private about it.

"It's like buying a billboard. Don't say you want but half the people to look at it. If you buy the billboard, you put it out there, people are going to look at it. 'Oh, I just wanted these people to see it.' Well, you can't pick and choose," he said.

Despite the district saying the NSA initially alerted them about a potential threat, the agency said they have no record of contact with school district officials.

In a statement, the NSA said, "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. If NSA personnel were to learn about a possible threat to a person's safety, such information would normally be provided to the federal agency or department that has subject matter responsibility for acting on the threat information. Moreover, NSA does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs."

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