HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – School officials in Huntsville plan on tracking students’ social media accounts as part of a new system that will also levy punishments based on posts, regardless of whether they’re private or public.
The system will also give Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Casey Wardynski and district administrators the ability to punish students for posting videos of fights in school, a measure at some believe is designed to hide the district’s failings, AL.com reports.
The new social media tracking effort builds on a program launched by Wardynski in 2014 that tracked the social media accounts of about 600 students, unbeknownst to them, the school board, or the ACLU. Wardynski reworked the program and debuted new 2016 procedures this week in a video posted to the district’s website.
“We’re going to implement a procedure that directly addresses an area that’s become a real concern again,” Wardynski said in the video, “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.”
The “procedure” involves tracking the social media posts of violent students or any school officials deem to be a risk to school safety. The superintendent can then use the social media posts – regardless of whether they posted publicly or privately – to take action against students. The school district’s director of operations will also “use school supervision technology, tips from students and teachers, and information from campus security officers to identify students who are making threats or planning violence on social media,” according to the news site.
The social media snooping comes after a series of fights at Huntsville and Grissom high schools in recent weeks, videos of which were posted online and generated criticism of district discipline policies. Wardynski said school officials reviewed those incidents and another at Huntsville elementary and used social media posts preceding the fights as justification for the social media surveillance.
“In each of those cases we’ve gone and done a forensic analysis of those cases and looked at social media surrounding those, and found there were a lot of precursor indicators in Facebook and other locations on social media that indicated a fight was headed to our school,” he said.
WAFF reports the new procedure comes days after a news report highlighted the district’s apparent underreporting to the state of incidents referred to local law enforcement. The news report showed that of the 2,384 student incident reports in Huntsville City Schools in the 2014-15 school year, only 23 or about 1 percent, were reported to the state as referred to law enforcement.
“In fact, the 23 incidents that were referred to law enforcement all occurred at Butler and Johnson High Schools. No other Huntsville City School incident report at any other campus was referred to police,” WAFF reports.
Those numbers stand in stark contrast to Madison County Schools, which showed 16 percent of 1,667 incidents were turned over to police.
“Absolutely these numbers would concern me,” state Department of Education analyst Marilyn Lewis told WAFF.
In superintendent’s 10-minute video announcing the new procedure, Wardynski specifically cites a recent fight at Grissom High School and video of it that “apparently will be played endlessly on TV in the local market,” and former Huntsville board member Anson Knowles believes it’s the bad publicity that’s really driving the new social media tracking effort.
Knowles also believes students’ behavior outside of school should should be left to police, instead of school officials.
“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,” Knowles told AL.com.
“Wardynski’s new procedure is more about preventing students from providing evidence of his own failures,” he added. “This is absurd and should not be allowed.”
Others seem to think it’s a good idea.
“Students in our school have elected to fight, video those fights, and then post those videos to social media,” Huntsville High School Parent Teacher Student Association president Stephanie Daniel said. “These acts are meant to gain attention and create a culture of fear.
“I believe the administration is dedicated to protecting the learning environment of our school …”