Huntsville City Schools paid a former FBI agent $157,000 last year to oversee security improvements, including the investigation of social media activity of public school students.
That online snooping effort, according to records provided on Thursday, led to the expulsion of just 14 students last school year. Of those students, 12 were African-American.
Madison County Commissioner Bob Harrison said the numbers suggest the system is targeting social media activities of black children. “That is effectively targeting or profiling black children in terms of behavior and behavioral issues,” said Harrison.
But board member Laurie McCaulley, the only African-American member of the city school board, said expulsions are caused by serious offenses, involving weapons, drugs or sex.
“These numbers tell me that I have kids with some major issues,” said McCaulley. “What I think the board is doing is trying to provide a safe environment for all children.”
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 theSAFe program. On Oct. 30, Huntsville City Schools provided records showing the system expelled 305 students last year. Of those, 238 were black.
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.
The system also provided paperwork stating the system paid former FBI agent Chris McRae $157,190 in the last fiscal year. McRae runs the SAFe program. (Although the system took weeks to respond, this figure had been shared online by board candidate Elisa Ferrell a month ago.)
The SAFe program came to light through internal documents provided to AL.com. In subsequent interviews, Superintendent Casey Wardynski said the system security personnel investigated the social media accounts of 600 out of 24,000 city students since January.
Wardysnki has said the program operates on tips from teachers or students. Security personnel look for images of guns or gang signs on social media sites like Facebook.
The system this week provided a 2012 proposal showing a list of salaries to be paid through T&W Operations, the consulting firm that employs McRae. Huntsville provided records showing $586,000 to be paid for salaries of T&W employees. That includes money for McRae, but also money for at least four other individuals in data entry and technical services.
The proposal in August of 2012 did not mention security consulting.
Ward said McRae mainly handled security issues “related to his area of expertise,” while other employees of T&W conducted inventory and IT work for the school system.
The board in 2013 also approved a second contract, mainly for software, for $400,000 with T&W.
Jeannee Gannuch, co-founder of the South Huntsville Civic Association, said after the online program came to light, she noticed T&W was following her civic group on Facebook. Gannuch, who has at times been critical of city officials, said she blocked the consulting firm.
“My tax dollars are paying for a hired hand to watch a political organization? That doesn’t seem right,” said Gannuch.
Ward said he had no knowledge of Gannuch’s allegation.
Paperwork provided by Huntsville this week says of McRae: “Specific to Huntsville City Schools, McRae provides security training, along with reviewing security features at Huntsville facilities both existing and those under construction. He recommends enhancements and improvements and works with HCS security staff on tips that are referred to the District office.”