24 Sep 2014

Huntsville schools say call from NSA led to monitoring students online. A secret program to monitor students' online activities began quietly in Huntsville schools, following a phone call from the NSA, school officials say.

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. 
The NSA, a U.S. agency responsible for foreign intelligence, this week said it has no record of a call to Huntsville and does not make calls to school systems.
Regardless of how the program started, Huntsville City Schools began scanning Facebook and other sites for signs of gang activity, watching for photos of guns, photos of gang signs and threats of violence.

The Huntsville monitoring program is called SAFe, or Students Against Fear. School board members said they did not know about the program when contacted last week.
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.  

Here's the school district's explanation of how the program got started:
About a year and half ago, Wardynski said, the NSA called Huntsville and reported a high school student had threatened on Facebook to injure a teacher.
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.
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.

The NSA is focused on foreign intelligence. Vines said any information about a domestic safety issue would be sent to another federal agency, like the FBI. "Moreover, NSA does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs," said Vines via email.
"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.

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