Alabama School District Intends To Monitor The Social Media Posts Of Its Students And, If Necessary, Punish Them Accordingly

An Alabama school district will soon begin monitoring its students' social media posts and, if deemed necessary, punish them for the content of those posts - whether they are public or private, the Birmingham News is reporting.

Dr. Casey Wardynski, the superintendent of Huntsville City Schools, says a thorough social media monitoring system is necessary after a spate of fights in schools throughout the district. Social media appears to have played a role in those fights; in some cases, the perpetrators and spectators planned the fights on social media. And in all cases, cell phone videos of the fights have been circulated on social media.

Wardynski believes that if the district could monitor its students social media posts and take disciplinary action against the students, it could "head off" problems in the future.
"We're going to implement a procedure that directly addresses an area that's become a real concern again, which is how violence in our schools – how threats to our schools – interact with social media, and how social media can play a role, if we pay attention to it, in heading off problems."
In fact, Alabama has already had a social media monitoring program in place since 2014. The Students Against Fear (SAFe) Program, spearheaded by Wardysnki and, according to some school board members, instituted without their knowledge or approval, monitored the social media accounts of 600 students in the district thought to be particularly at risk of violence or gang affiliation.
"Here's a kid with a pistol on Facebook. These are his buddies, each with a gun. We're instantly interested in that."
Wardysnki claimed at the time that he instituted the SAFe program after a tip from the National Security Administration (NSA) indicating that there was a potential threat against a teacher in the district made on social media. However, according to a Birmingham News report from the time, the NSA denied having knowledge of such a threat and also stated that revealing that threat to a school official would have been against the agency's policies.The controversial program also drew the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In a letter, made available via the Birmingham News, ACLU representative Randall C. Marshall suggested that the social media monitoring program disproportionately targeted black students and violated students' rights to privacy and freedom of speech.

"A student whose online speech is deemed inappropriate could face punishment, including in-school or out-of-school suspension and sometimes even expulsion. These punishments can constitute significant violations of students' rights to privacy and freedom of expression online."
However, the SAFe Program only targeted a few hundred specific students. It largely left alone the social media posts of the district's approximately 24,000 other students.

The controversy of the SAFe program notwithstanding, Wardysnki is now pressing to have the social media monitoring program expanded to include all students with a history of violence, or who are deemed to be a threat to school safety.

The expanded monitoring policy would rely on social media monitoring software, tips from parents and teachers, and information from school resource officers to identify and punish students who are making threats or advocating (or planning) violence on social media.

Students could be punished for those posts whether they are public or private. The monitoring system would not be able to see students' private social media posts unless they were brought to the attention of school administrators, either by parents, other students, or community members.

Despite concerns from the ACLU, Wardynski does not appear to be alone in supporting a district-wide social media monitoring program. One man in Wardynski's corner is former Huntsville city school board candidate Anson Knowles.

"It is not difficult to see that the superintendent may punish students for posting videos of violence in their schools in an effort to prevent the public from seeing what is happening in the schools."
Another person in Wardynski's corner is Stephanie Daniel, the PTSA president at Huntsville High.
"Students in our school have elected to fight, video those fights, and then post those videos to social media," she said. "These acts are meant to gain attention and create a culture of fear."
Do you believe it's right to monitor high school students' posts on social media and punish them for what they say and do online, outside of school hours and off school property? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Image via Shutterstock/scyther5]