School District That Said NSA Told It To Monitor Students' Social Media Posts Is Back With Non-NSA Approved Monitoring

from the forum-lurking-as-service dept

The same Alabama school district that claimed God the NSA told it to monitor its students' social media activities is back in the news again. The tune has changed but the lyrics remain the same. This new social media monitoring program proceeds without the NSA's blessing or the use of a snappy acronym, but it's pretty much the same thing -- only expanded to cover all students (potentially), rather than the former's programs 600 or so "targets." (via the Free Thought Project)

Over the weekend, Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski released a video detailing new system-wide procedures designed to improve discipline and safety in schools.

Cell phone videos of fights at Huntsville High and Grissom High have been circulating online in recent weeks, stirring up debate about the effectiveness of discipline policies at the schools.

"We're going to implement a procedure that directly addresses an area that's become a real concern again," said Wardynski in the video, published here, "which is how violence in our schools – how threats to our schools – interact with social media, and how social media can play a role, if we pay attention to it, in heading off problems."

The new procedure will allow the superintendent and administrators to review the public social media posts of students who have a history of violence or whose behavior demonstrates a risk to student and employee safety.
There's nothing stopping schools from reviewing public posts made to students' social media accounts. Disciplining them for First Amendment-protected activity performed outside of the schools' confines is a bit more problematic.

The one-page document laying out the specifics of the monitoring program (which really isn't all that specific) states the school will take action against students if it feels posts made off-campus "threaten" the "safety" of the student body or its employees. Nowhere in the document is it indicated that this will be limited to true threats or other exceptions to First Amendment protections. Instead, the school makes it clear its monitoring efforts will be subject only to its own discretion, with punishments to follow for students who run afoul of its vague stipulations.
If the superintendent determines that a student’s social media posts reasonably constitute a serious threat of physical violence to students or employees, the superintendent may initiate such disciplinary action as he deems necessary to alleviate such threat.

If the superintendent determines that a student has made posts to social media indicating either that student or another student’s propensity towards violence or gang affiliation, the superintendent may also refer such student to any applicable school-based or district-level student supports.

The school-based or district-level student supports may, in appropriate circumstances, include recommendations for non-mandatory counseling and support for such student with the informed consent of the student’s parent or legal guardian.
The thing is that any actual criminal activity occurring off-campus should be handled by law enforcement, not school administration. Serious threats made by students when not on school grounds may be noted as reasons to forbid the students' re-entry into the school, but this determination should be made after law enforcement has investigated.

The other stuff is vague nonsense. This puts the school in the position of monitoring posts for ethereal matter like a "propensity towards violence." Then it wants school officials to act on it, even if the posts occurred off-campus, might have been taken out of context and/or do not actually represent the sentiments of the person expressing them (retweets, re-posts, "likes," etc.).

Making this worse is the apparent impetus for the policy: apparently, video recordings of fights between students that were posted on social media and went somewhat viral. Superintendent Wardynski claims the fight was planned on social media platforms. His assertion is couched in DHS-speak.
"In each of those cases we've gone and done a forensic analysis of those cases and looked at social media surrounding those, and found there were a lot of precursor indicators in Facebook and other locations in social media that indicated a fight was headed to our school," he said.
So, this isn't a well-thought out policy. This is a kneejerk policy. Much like its previous, NSA-approved social media monitoring effort, isolated incidents are presented as trends in order to justify the district's actions. In 2014, the program was justified because someone said something possibly threatening in a chat room while a Yemeni native was present and a "gang" composed of "six or seven students related to each other" was dismantled by the school's "SAFe" team. In this case, it's a fight or two that, like everything else these days, was captured for posterity by observers will cellphones and uploaded to social media platforms.

And, in the cases cited, the activity that was filmed occurred on school grounds, where it fell firmly under the district's control. The superintendent is taking something fully-justifiable and expanding it beyond its logical and legal confines.

The district may find itself in trouble if it insists on punishing students for off-campus behavior. Despite being on the receiving end of backlash for the district's last social media monitoring efforts, Superintendent Wardynski appears to have learned nothing.

Filed Under: alabama, casey wardynski, huntsville, nsa, social media, students, surveillance


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Mar 2016 @ 7:36am

    There is no way I would allow any school my child goes to to have their social media accounts monitored by school officials. That is a job for law enforcement and for parents, NOT school administrators. Not only that, but I would organize every parent to file a class action lawsuit against the school district for imposing this policy in the first place and encourage parents to pull their children from school until the school district withdraws this policy.

    I don't want school administrators to have access to my children's social media accounts.

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