Huntsville City Schools have been monitoring students’ online activity since January

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) - They say it started with a call from the NSA. In May 2013 Al Lankford, a schools security official, took a call from someone he said identified themselves as with the National Security Agency.  They warned of a student who had posted tweets threatening violence against an assistant principal as well as two teachers.

The district received a similar warning from a monitoring company called GeoCop.

When school officials looked into the threats, the student was placed in alternative education. Later that day when police searched his car, they found a large knife in his vehicle.

Superintendent Casey Wardinyski says this is what motivated them to start monitoring students' social media posts.

"Very often we find unfortunately that young people have evil intentions which they express in public places like Reddit and Facebook and Twitter," said Wardynski. "They provide video of what they've already done, they provide pictures of themselves with weapons."

In January, the district silently launched Students Against Fear (SAFe). A team of three security officers monitor students posts on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.

Students face disciplinary action -- up to expulsion -- when the team discovers threatening content. Already 20 students have been placed in alternative programs because of their social media posts.

Wardynski says the students do not come from any particular schools or from a distinct student group.

"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," said Wardynski.

School officials say they are only monitoring social media accounts for threats of violence toward others or themselves. Wardynski says students will not be punished for photos or posts that are critical of the school system or show alcohol use or other questionable behaviors.

The National Security Agency told our news partners Al.com, "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."

District officials claim otherwise. In an internal email dated Friday, May 17th, Lankford writes "National Security from Washington, DC, called [redacted] to speak to the head administrator..." Wardynski says the caller ID showed the call came from Washington, D.C.

Though the NSA does not get involved in domestic matters, school officials say the tweet thread involved replies from someone in Yemen. That is why they believe the NSA may have been aware of their student's activity.

12 comments

  • Dane Parker

    The seriousness of the incident aside, I am rather fond of the NSA’s response. It seems the agency has been recruiting rhetoricians; as the full statement is just a fancy way of saying “We can neither confirm nor deny your report.”

  • Ray

    Well, it makes me feel good that they detected this before some bad happened. I personally dont take issue with the NSA using our telecommunications infrastructure to protect the county and as this incident illustrates it is needed. All these privacy intrusion concerns shouldnt matter if you are not engaged in illegal activity…

  • Nuclear Mike

    BIG BROTHER is here regardless of the safety value…if we give up our freedoms for security then there will be NO freedom to secure…

  • R_Dub

    I find it chilling that schools monitor and punish children for out of school activities. Even more chilling is the lack of outrage from the general public.

  • Michael

    Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t written to be an instruction manual.

    “Those that would give up their freedom for a little security do not deserve freedom or security.”

  • ariel

    Also interfering with a child’s schooling because of something they posted on social media is just absolutely pathetic and I hope they all know they’re causing more harm than good. It’s idiotic, an invasion of privacy, and makes me not want to live on this planet anymore.

  • Dan

    If parents would wake up and do their job at home as parents then the district would never of had to resort to such measures !

    • always watching

      The district doesn’t have to “resort to such measures” its insane to think anyone’s privacy being violated is OK .. Who are the 3 people hired to watch over social media for these kids,where are the background checks for these individuals ,takes a strange individual to sit and filter through children’s online post all day every day if you ask me

  • Jonathan Bridges

    If you listen to the language used carefully you will understand,they are not just monitoring then at school, but at home as well!! This also means that everyone our kids are friends with are being monitored as a result. My daughter goes to Huntsville High and I DO NOT agree with this. I don’t like my daughter being treated like a terror suspect. The fear propaganda being used to justify this is just that, fear propaganda. They want us to be afraid of our kids. They want us to look at our kids and see what they see, potential mass murderers!! I am sick of Americans standing by and doing nothing while our rights are being stripped away from us to “prevent possible terror events” THOSE THAT FORFIT THEIR LIBERTY FOR SECURITY WILL HAVE NEITHER!!! Do you all not see what is happening here? Could this safety issue not be achieved by installing metal detectors at the doors? Or better yet BY ACTUALLY HAVING A OPEN DIALOGUE WITH THE KIDS TO HELP WORK OUT THE PROBLEMS THAT LEAD TO SCHOOL VIOLENCE BEFORE IT REACHES CRITICAL MASS? This is unacceptable!! They are not only invading the privacy of our children, they are saying that the Parents of said kids can’t be trusted to monitor their kids actions on their own. They need help from the NSA,Geowatch,the school board and lord knows who else. Do you want the state doing your job as a Parent? I sure as hell don’t need any help from a government institution in the matters of raising my kids.

  • Stephanie

    Yeah and when a student goes and shoots up a school and kills a bunch of kids and the warning signs were visible, especially on social media, then all of you be wondering why nothing was done before to avoid it

  • Kenneth Blagburn

    When we have every politician in Alabama in commercials extolling the virtues of guns and the NRA pushing for every person to have a gun no matter their background or mental state. We wonder why we have Columbine, Virgina Tech, Northern Illinois University, Aurora, or Newtown, etc..

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