Concern Grows as Alabama School Watches Online Activity, Blames NSA

According to school officials, a secret program tracking students’ online activities was put in place in Huntsville, Alabama after a phone call from the National Security Agency (NSA).

The school reported that the NSA called the school 18 months ago concerning a student who was making violent threats on Facebook, causing the school to begin monitoring students’ activity on social media sites.

The NSA has refuted the explanation, saying that it does not have a record of any phone calls to the school, nor does it make such calls in the first place.

“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.

The Huntsville program is called Students Against Fear, or SAFe.

School board members reported to The Huntsville Times that they had no knowledge of any such program.

The newspaper obtained internal documents showing four examples of students posing with guns on Facebook.  None of the photos were taken on school grounds.  Three of the students were listed as expelled and one was sent for counseling.

According to the district, the program began after the phone call from the NSA.  Al Lankford, a security officer at the school, was the one to receive the call.  He said a group of security guards then went to the school and searched a student’s car.

“We found a very good size knife and the student was expelled,” said Casey Wardynski, a former U.S. Army colonel appointed as superintendent in Huntsville in 2011.

The NSA denied making any such call, stating that the FBI would handle such matters.

However, Wardynski said that a foreign connection between the student and an individual in Yemen would be enough to gain the attention of the NSA.

First Amendment expert Frank LoMonte said it is necessary to find out the truth behind the phone call, as while many schools do monitor online activities, they do not typically attribute that monitoring to a phone call from the NSA.  LoMonte is calling on Congress to investigate the issue.

“If there is any credible evidence that the NSA called the school system,” said U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, “well, yeah, we ought to find out (if the NSA has such a program).”

The only information pertaining to the SAFe program listed on the school’s website is a list of three staff members, including two security guards and consultant Chris McRae, a former FBI agent.

According to Wardynski, the program is only concerned with threats against the school, focusing on gangs, violence, and suicide threats.  Students are removed and placed in alternative programs.

The program has elicited a range of comments from parents, many of whom feel that it will help keep schools safe, while others are have concerns regarding the secrecy surrounding the program.

Similar programs are in place around the country.  Geo Listening is a provider who scans social media sites for districts in California.  According to the company’s 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 & safety.”

A new California bill would require schools to notify parents of any information-collecting practices going on by school officials.  The bill would also require all information obtained to be destroyed after the student leaves the district.