Carey Wedler (The Anti-Media)
September 30, 2014
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HUNTSVILLE, AL- On the last day of the 2013 school year, Alabama high school junior Auseel Yousefi woke up and still half asleep, decided to make some jokes on Twitter. These jokes would lead to a tip to his school, allegedly from the NSA. While he would come to apologetically admit to his Lee High School school administrators and a higher level disciplinary panel that they were in poor taste, he had no idea that his tweets and subsequent expulsion would spark the initiation of a secret school spy program throughout his school district in Hunstville, Alabama. Details of the program’s existence came to light last week.
When the SAFE (Students Against Fear) program was revealed, it was defended by Superintendent of Huntsville City Schools Casey Wardynski. The Superintendent claimed that the NSA tipped a school security guard off to Yousefi’s tweets. In Wardynsky’s mind, this justifies the secret program that surveilled students district-wide and led to expulsion and boot camp for several Huntsville students. It is a program that even the school board says they knew nothing about.
The Anti-Media obtained an exclusive interview with Auseel Yousefi, the original expelled student who made alleged threats, to better understand the circumstances of his situation and the factors that led to an unknown source reporting his comments on social media. He also shared his insight on being the example that lead to widespread, secret school spying.
Yousefi, an Advanced Placement student with high test scores who played on the soccer team and performed in the school musical, was called into the principal’s office on his last day of his junior year. Joined by the assistant principal, vice principal, principal, and another individual he did not recognize, he was presented with print-outs of his tweets. One was an embarrassing remark about the assistant principal, saying she had “balls of steel.” Another was what Yousefi called an obvious joke about his intention to get a young student teacher to date him.
The most offensive tweets were what prompted the alleged NSA phone call to the school. In one, he wrote he was “going to get in a fight” that day, which he says to anyone who knew him, was obviously in jest. He had no history of violence or misbehavior in school, though he describes himself as having been “a troublemaker in kindergarten.” The other tweet was the most concerning, where he said he was going to “chop” a teacher “in the throat.” Yousefi explained that this was a reference to one of his teachers, for whom English was her second language.
“I think she repeated some of the ‘urban youth’ slang we used for the fact that she found it to be odd or funny. She was aware that her repeating things we said was something her students found funny.”
After a classmate said, “I’m going to chop you in the throat!” the teacher repeated the phrase to the class’s amusement. This explained Yousefi’s tweet that morning as a reference to the “inside joke.” Nonetheless, when he arrived at school that day, administrators at his school informed him that he had violated school code by making a threat online. They wanted to search his pockets and his car, which he had no problem with, knowing he had no violent intentions. Yousefi walked to his car with the school security guard and police officer, who joked about the notion of finding something questionable in his car. They knew him and liked him, and Yousefi was on such good terms with the school administrators that he referred to the school principal, Mr. Weisman, as “K. Weezy.”
Things turned more serious, however, when the police officer found a knife in his car. The knife, Yousefi said, was an old souvenir from a Renaissance fair. Yousefi, who describes himself as a “nerd,” explained that the years-old, cheesy looking, bejeweled dagger
—which would have broken had you tapped it against anything —belonged to one of his oldest friends. The friend had asked him several weeks earlier to throw it out. Yousefi forgot and left it in his car, which raised concern with the school police officer when he found it. Paired with the tweet about a “chop” in the throat, this sparked suspicion (though the “chop” remark was in reference to hitting, as in karate, Yousefi clarified). As a result, they sent him home as his threatening tweets online constituted “Class II” and “Class III” violations of school code.
Yousefi explained that the administrators at the school seemed reluctant to pursue extreme punishment against him. They offered to his mother that she could submit his laptop so they could scan it to see if he had visited any websites that indicated he was prone to violence. It was not a demand, but the family submitted to the request for good measure. The administration found nothing offensive or suspicious on Yousefi’s computer.
To this day, he feels no resentment toward his school administrators, even though they felt they had to report him. Technically, he had violated school codes. This seems to speak more to the rigidity of public school policy and the necessity of following orders than it does any sort of witch hunt against him at the Lee High School level. It demonstrates the inability for unique situations to be dealt with appropriately when rules and obedience to them are valued above all else.
A week later, Yousefi attended a panel hearing led by three vice principals from different schools. He was allowed to give a five minute speech to explain himself, where he says he told them:
“I should have been smarter about what I was saying and where I was saying it but I don’t think it is a good representation of my character…it’s obvious I would never harm anyone.”
His Vice Principal, who was present at the hearing but not on the panel, according to Yousefi,
“did mention that [they] complied the requests of my laptop and pictures of my room and said that nothing was out of the ordinary (as in no violent searches or website visits, no indications of things that could encourage violent behavior in my room, etc.).”
Further, Yousefi brought print-outs of his other Tweets in order to demonstrate his peaceful nature and sense of humor, which he describes as “sarcastic and ironic.” He says he came with glowing letters of recommendation from teachers, the local city attorney, and two pastors, but described one of the vice principals, who sat in the middle of the panel, as biased against him. She told him he had a “history of being disrespectful” based on interpretations of his tweets. Yousefi felt the vice principal’s perception was fabricated and twisted:
“Afterwards as I was leaving, I was looking through my tweets and I had to stop myself from going back in there and saying…she lied.”
About a month later, Yousefi heard back from the panel: he was expelled from Lee High School, but only for a semester. He appealed but was denied and chose not to appeal a second and final time as he thought it would be beneficial to take time away from school. In a Facebook status update posted recently, following the recent news of the SAFE program his experience inspired, he wrote:
“I do want to clear something up. I’m not a complete victim here. I made the (mostly, considering I’d just woken up) conscious decision to say what I did on Twitter and I forgot to take the renaissance fair dagger out of my car the week or two prior. I committed a Class II and Class III Offense. My expulsion was completely warranted. I can admit, however, that it’s a little unusual, my Twitter specifically being watched, but it upsets me to see people thinking so horribly of the school system, Lee specifically, for my expulsion…How often do you hear about people being expelled for a semester? People get suspended for a semester, but the rules I broke guarantee expulsion. The fact that I was expelled for only a semester says something in and of itself. I’m lucky to have attended Lee when I did with such great teachers and administrators… “
Yousefi says he understands why the administrators acted as they did. It just so happens that this is not the most suspicious part of the puzzling story.
What creates the most suspicion is who reported Yousefi in the first place, and why, as well as why his experience sparked the spy program. The superintendent of Huntsville schools, Dr. Casey Wardynski, a West Point military graduate and graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, supports the claim of Lee High School security guard, Al Lankford, who said he received a phone call from someone claiming to be an NSA official. The NSA officially denied that they had anything to do with it, saying they do not get involved in school systems. Yousefi, and many others, however, take little stock in what the NSA says. The organization has been caught lying on many occasions, as has the government in an attempt to defend it.
Yousefi remembers that when he was shown a print-out of his tweets on that last day of school, there was an email address listed at the bottom that appeared to be from an organization. He says he doesn’t remember what it said because at the time, he was only concerned with clearing up the misunderstanding. Yousefi does remember recognizing the email address as being that of an organization, not an individual. He also says that at some point, though he can’t remember when, he remembers hearing the term “GEOCOP” mentioned by administrators.
GEOCOP is a cybersecurity company (created by former FBI agent Bob Dowling) that frequently reports to school systems, often in the hopes of attaining contracts. They have reported suspicious findings to schools before, as was the case in Ohio, Texas, and Arizona last year. The founder of the company reported that at the time of Yousefi’s tweets, they were operating, but denies having a record of contacting Lee High School over his specific tweets. This leaves the origin of the tip unclear, especially considering that GEOCOP has publicly offered tips to other schools before. Dowling suggested it might have been a surveillance company similar to GEOCOP. If not that, this leaves the only other option that it was an individual who reported him. But if that were the case, why would they lie and claim to be the NSA? Is being a concerned citizen not enough?
Yousefi himself is unclear on who might have reported him. When asked who he thought it was–the NSA or GEOOCP, he said, “I base everything off data and analysis and honestly, there’s solid evidence for both.”
Yousefi, a Yemeni-American who was born and raised in Alabama, said he doesn’t believe there was racism or prejudice at work at the level of his school administrators. He believes that if certain members of the staff had found the tweets on their own, they wouldn’t have pursued punishment (as he says, “because such behavior is incredibly common on social media”). It was the fact that an outside source reported him that prompted them to take action. Was there however prejudice on the part of either GEOCOP, the NSA, or whoever reported him in the first place? Yousefi expressed the view that those of Yemeni descent have often been targeted:
“There have been several cases where Yemeni and Yemeni-American’s social media has been monitored closer than that of non-Arab Americans… there have been cases of (non-local level) law enforcement (or certain government agencies that don’t specialize in domestic law enforcement) asking questions or reporting information to their school systems or employers…Arabs and Arab-Americans are under a generally closer eye than non-Arab Americans. This is no secret, though (ask the TSA).”
However, it was not just his nationality that may have drawn attention to him. Yousefi explained:
“I’ve never been on very good terms with the US government for the fact that I’ve always disagreed with [it] on things like U.S. foreign policy and the keeping of close corporate ties. Seeing the ways that corporate influence has molded so many major government actions and policies blows my mind. There was never a point in time where I was felt this was justifiable. I always question things, I’m a rational thinker, and my government was never exempt from my course of thought or reason.”
He added that he’s “always made these thoughts very public” and said he had been warned by friends that he should be careful about what he said, especially because he was of Arab descent.
Because of this, he always assumed that he was on the radar of the NSA. “I don’t think I was watched only after that tweet, I think I was being watched for a while… I just thought if I was, there was nothing to worry about…I never thought they would ever be involved with my school life. I thought if they were looking for something, it would be that I was a terrorist planning to bomb something.”
When he asked if he believed his views had something to do with his targeting, he was reserved:
“I really can’t say that my outspokenness was a factor. I wouldn’t be surprised as I’ve learned that it happens to people of different races, genders, etc. all the time. It’s possible that it was both race and political history combined.”
Yousefi speaks very highly of his schools, its employees, and the superintendent, Dr. Wardynski, and says the high level administrator knew who he was as he had seen him at school events (though Wardynski was not present at the panel hearing and was on leave taking care of a sick spouse when Yousefi appealed
—therefore was unable to approve the appeal). By the time he was back in the office, the deadline had passed for Yousefi to appeal again, and Yousefi was at peace with taking the semester off.
However, this brings Wardynski’s implementation of the SAFE program, led by a former FBI agent, further into question. He had seen him at school events and had he taken any time to seriously investigate the incident (he tells the story as though he had) and the student involved, Wardynski would have known Yousefi had no history of dangerous behavior and in fact, was a valued student for his high test scores and good grades.
Nevertheless, the superintendent used the incident as an impetus to craft the secret spy program. Wardynski was quoted by the Daily Caller as saying Yousefi (unnamed in the article) had a foreign connection and was expressing his intention to harm a teacher in a chat room that included one individual residing in Yemen. When asked about this quote, Yousefi chalked this discrepancy in facts up to Wardynski being technologically illiterate, not quite understanding what Twitter entails. Still, the mention of a connection to a Yemeni national (Yousefi denied ever speaking to people in Yemen and said he does not believe he even has any Yemeni followers on Twitter) in the Daily Caller’s article brings into question either the accuracy of the publication’s reporting or the validity of Wardynski’s justifications for his program.
The article also quoted Wardynski as stating a “good-size” knife was found in the student’s car and vouching personally that the NSA had called the school’s security guard. This is curious considering that as superintendent, he was not on the premises when the alleged call was made, nor was he present for Yousefi’s disciplinary hearing or appeal.
Nevertheless, to date the program inspired by Yousefi’s experience has led to the expulsion of four students for posting pictures of themselves with guns, which is legal in Alabama if over the age of 18. None of the students were on school grounds and may have been of legal age. Wardynski claims the spy program also helped to break up a “gang,” though as much as Yousefi respects the superintendent, his belief is that this is an exaggeration. He described organized crime in Huntsville as “two guys without any money who decide to rob a store.”
Of the spying program implemented after Yousefi’s experience, Yousefi said:
“I’ve agreed with most of Wardynski’s actions and policies as superintendent. He knows what he’s doing with our school system’s finances and I imagine that if he had an even more active role in the Huntsville community, he could work wonders. I have my disagreements, though fewer, and one of those is with the SAFE program. There are rules instilled for students at school and those should apply in school. Whether or not students break those rules outside of school is completely between them, society, and the legal institutions already established for the sake of public safety. Furthermore, no one likes the feeling that their “boss” is watching their social life in action. I don’t think a student should have to feel afraid of their school finding out about their actions if they have nothing to do with the school directly, even if they are irresponsible…. what the school system might consider wrong or unethical may not be either of those things in the eyes of a student. If the school wants an inherent role in student’s lives outside of pure academics and future preparedness and wants to get involved in ethics, maybe they should focus on educating children in the field of philosophy, something extremely important that is widely neglected by American school systems. That’s the starting point, not invading their privacy and personal space. Preventing dangerous behavior in the long term probably does the school, the student, and society as a whole a world of good as opposed to catching it as it happens or right before.”
Though Yousefi feels he was not singled out at the school level and does not resent his experience, the conduct of Wardynski following the instance is the most troublesome. While it is concerning that a spy agency (whether the NSA, a private business, or even a private citizen) was targeting Yousefi and submitting his tweets to the school, it is even more disturbing that the superintendent used this as an excuse to surreptitiously spy on an entire school district of students. This powerfully demonstrates the culture of fear and suspicion that has been cultivated in the United States for decades, whether during the Cold War or more recently and most extreme, in post-9/11 society.
There have been other instances of school spying that drew attention and criticism. Last year, the Glendale school district in southern California began monitoring its students to “combat cyberbullying,” while in 2010, a Penslyvania school was caught spying on students with webcams on school-issued laptops. Though Wardynski claims SAFE does not scan the internet for drug use, sex, or violations other than perceived threats of violence and suicide, the notion that a school district is spying on its students is a concerning one for many.
As NPR wrote, spying on students may not be the solution to these problems. Doing so creates a culture of distrust that debilitates the school from actually helping, and the effectiveness is questionable when only public posts are available to monitor. As Yousefi offered, perhaps investing in programs that promote well-being and better philosophy will yield a better outcome. Further, in the Glendale case, spying continues in light of a recent report that showed, according to the superintendent of schools there that :
“Many of these posts were them… trying to be funny. Once looked into by the school site administration, there was no basis for a concern…It was, rather, an opportunity for a lesson that these are public [posts], these are permanent, these are out there and you really do need to watch what you put as your public image, and it’s never too early to monitor your public image.”
She said that the program was in response to a prior suicide, but does the risk of suicide
—when most instances are light-hearted —justify the encroachment of school surveillance on all students to teach lessons on public image?
Yousefi’s experience fortunately did not prevent him from getting into college and earning a scholarship, but it does indicate the heightened level of surveillance in America and ironically, the extreme levels of fear and paranoia that inspired the dystopic Students Against Fear program. While the origins of the tip are still unclear, the incident and resultant spy program shows that in a society increasingly adherent to the “see something, say something” mentality, borderline appropriate tweets become fodder for extreme punishment and subjective moral judgments are codified into potentially damaging repercussions.
As a result of this increasingly surveilled and fear-based undercurrent in society, it is disconcerting to think that students are being conditioned to know that everything they do can be subject to scrutiny from government administrators who have the power to apply discipline to areas normally, and rightfully, out of their jurisdiction.
As Yousefi said of the NSA, ” Once we reach a level of distrust for our government that we feel we must censor ourselves regularly, we have probably sacrificed our freedom to opinion and speech.”
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