Of all the things that have never happened, this is one of them
A secret program to monitor students' online activities began quietly in Huntsville schools, following a phone call from the NSA, school officials say.
Huntsville schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski says the system began monitoring social media sites 18 months ago, after the National Security Agency tipped the school district to a student making violent threats on Facebook.
Huntsville City Schools' head of security
was the man who answered the call.
Al Lankford, the city's longtime school security officer, told AL.com that he took the NSA phone call. He said security officers went to the high school and eventually searched the boy's car.
"We found a very good size knife and the student was expelled," said Wardynski, a former U.S. Army colonel appointed as superintendent in Huntsville in 2011.
Normally, I'm not much for NSA boilerplate
denials, but the one issued here by the agency rings true.
NSA did not acknowledge placing such a call. "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 Vanee Vines, public affairs specialist with the NSA, on Monday.
While the NSA
is gathering data
on Americans (on purpose) as well as their communications
(supposedly inadvertently), one thing it doesn't do is call up school district security staffers and tell them about threats being made on Facebook. The FBI may do that, as may local law enforcement (remember kids, public posts are public), but the NSA generally doesn't get involved in the policing of the nation's student body.
More from the NSA spokesperson, who must have loved delivering this snarky line after months and months of denying more serious allegations.
"Moreover, NSA does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs," said Vines via email.
What likely happened was some civilian reported the threat and name-dropped the security agency in order to boost credibility. Or a student prank went horribly right. But school district reps aren't backing down from this highly-unlikely narrative. The superintendent thinks it's legit because there was a terrorism nexus.
"There was a foreign connection," said Wardynski, explaining why the NSA would contact Huntsville schools. He said the student in Huntsville had made the online threats while chatting online with a group that included an individual in Yemen.
Whether you buy the story or not (and if you do, you're probably on the district's security staff), there's still the fact that the school is actively monitoring its students' social media postings. All well and good as far as monitoring goes, but it's also acting on what's being posted off-campus, which isn't as acceptable.
Internal documents explaining the program, obtained by AL.com, show examples of four different students posing on Facebook with handguns. None are on school grounds. Three are listed as expelled. One was referred for counseling.
Not a good idea. The school district shouldn't be policing the outside world. This is beyond the boundaries of its jurisdiction. Some of these individuals could legally own a gun under state law and there's nothing on the books prohibiting them from posing with them. Going beyond the big, bad stuff like teens with guns, there's the fact that the school is looking at everything being posted and making disciplinary decisions.
This super secret (even board members hadn't heard of it before now), NSA-ordained monitoring program has zero documentation available to the public (or parents) outside of a horrendous logo and a few screenshots [embedded below]. There's not much in the way of accountability. Will the program be used to reprimand, suspend or otherwise hassle students who do other things that violate school policies? The superintendent says it's strictly limited to "threats against the school," but with all the information gathered being from public forums, there's no real reason this unwritten, informal guideline will be respected. In fact, the documents obtained show that this statement isn't even true.
He said the focus is on gangs, threats of violence and threats of suicide.
They found six other photos showing the student flashing suspected gang signs. "SAFe recommendation: Consider (student) for expulsion."
[Direct threat how?]
The superintendent also cites "see something, say something," and says students and parents are "pretty good about that." If so, then the program is redundant. Real
threats against the school would be reported. A teenager photographed holding a gun is not
a threat against the school, in and of itself, but the school is treating these postings as if they are.
The superintendent also claims the program helped break up a "gang," so it's obviously already generated great ROI (eyeroll). Said "gang" was "six or seven people" scattered amongst various schools, all related to each other.
The supposed call from the NSA is akin to a "road to Damascus" conversion. The school security team received an (almost literal) "higher calling" to be The Little Surveillance Team That Could and went forward to do "good works." Not by God, but by the power vested in the NSA's phone calls, Huntsville's crack team of teen watchers is weeding out students based on gun ownership and finger arrangement. If you're already inclined to extend your monitoring
of students all the way into their homes and mobile devices, all it takes is the smallest step of faith to believe that the National Security Agency wants you to save your school from dangerous students who utter threats in the presence of a Yemeni.
[Credit for opening 'shop: Rob Beschizza at Boing Boing