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District's Social Media Monitoring Led to Expulsions of Mostly Black Students

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The Huntsville, Ala., school district expelled 14 students last year based on the findings of a private contractor who monitored students' social media activity as part of greater school security efforts, AL.com reports. Twelve of the students were black, drawing concerns that the program unfairly targeted African-American students, the paper reported.

The district hired the contractor—a former FBI agent—for $157,000 to help administer security programs, including Students Against Fear, or SAFe. The district's website describes the program as "a proactive program of Huntsville City Schools Security Operations to help deter or eliminate violence and disruptive student misconduct in the schools, particularly student misconduct that may relate to weapons possession and gang activity." 

"AL.com on Oct. 1 requested public records listing expulsions by race and expenses related to the security consultants involved in the online investigations known as the SAFe program. On Oct. 30, Huntsville City Schools provided records showing the system expelled 305 students last year. Of those, 238 were black," the report says. "That means 78 percent of all expulsions involved black children in a system where 40 percent of students are black. Expulsions related to social media investigations through the SAFe program were a small part of that total. Of those 14 expulsions related to SAFe, 86 percent involved black students."

Superintendent Casey Wardynski told AL.com that security personnel had investigated the social media accounts of 600 out of 24,000 of the district's students since January.

"Wardysnki has said the program operates on tips from teachers or students," the report says. "Security personnel look for images of guns or gang signs on social media sites like Facebook."

The report quotes one county official, who says the program appears to unfairly target black students. Another official, the only black member of the school board, said the program appeared to be targeting serious behavior "to provide a safe environment for all children."

In a sometimes criticized portion of civil rights guidance on school discipline released in January, the U.S. departments of education and justice said schools are accountable for more than just weeding out intentional discrimination. School systems must also ensure that their discipline policies aren't written or applied in a manner that results in a disparate impact on students from one racial or ethnic group, the guidance says.

Other districts have also faced concerns over free speech issues for the way they addressed students' online posts, particularly if those posts were made outside of school.

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