April V. Taylor
Former FBI agent Chris McRae was paid $157,000 to spy on Black students who attended Huntsville City Schools (HCS) in Alabama. He was hired last year to oversee what are being referred to as security improvements that were set in motion by superintendent Casey Wardynski. Wardynski began the security improvements after school officials were allegedly contacted by the National Security Agency about a supposed threat on a student’s social media account that promised to injure a teacher. What wound up being implemented was “a massive spy apparatus” that disproportionately targeted Black students who attended Huntsville’s public schools.
Superintendent Wardynski reports that the school system began monitoring social media sites 18 months ago looking for things such as gang activity, pictures of guns and gang signs, and threats of violence. The program she hired McRae to oversee is called Students Against Fear, or SAFe. When contacted back in October, school board members said that they were unaware of the program and that the board had not been briefed on the program. There was also no information about the program on the city system website.
More than 600 Huntsville City School students had their social media accounts monitored last year. Records that were provided recently about the spying show that of the 14 students expelled because of information uncovered in the program, twelve were Black. This equates to 86 percent of the explusions carried out under the SAFe program were against Black students in a school system where only 40 percent of the children are Black. Madison County Commissioner Bob Harrison believes that these numbers show that the program is being used to unfairly target Black students’ social media sites for spying. Harrison specifically states, “This is effectively targeting or profiling black children in terms of behavior and behavioral issues.”
McRae and others who are responsible for running the SAFe program are not employed directly by Huntsville City Schools. They are directly employed by T & W Operations. According to the school system, McRae is contracted to, “provide security training, along with reviewing security features at Huntsville facilities both existing and those under construction.” What is disturbing in addition to Black kids being targeted for spying is that since learning who McRae’s employer is, many Huntsville citizens who have been critical of city officials have noticed that groups they belong to are being monitored by T & W Operations on social media sites.