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.