VA school district seeks ‘social media listening’ on ‘hate speech’ to deter ‘negative actions’ towards staff
Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) is seeking a social media monitoring service that will track hate speech as well as purported harassment and threats against employees, students, or racial groups – resurfacing concerns about First Amendment rights and school safety.
A request for proposal (RFP), which closed last week, showed the Virginia school district offering 200,000 to “detect help deter any negative actions or consequences coming from social media which may be directed to racial groups or any student or teacher within FCPS.”
Under technical and functional requirements, the school district lists “Automatically classify aliases, usernames, emails websites, etc.”; “Visually identify relationships and connections between persons”; “Save search queries and set alerts for active listening”; and “False positive reduction with embedded violence language classifier and metadata optimization technology.”
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Later in the RFP, FCPS clarifies that the services are intended for the Office of Safety and Security and the district intends “to monitor social media threats, harassment, hate speech, and bullying.” It further described the requested service as “‘social media listening’ that targets FCPS ‘brand.”
On Tuesday, FCPS spokesperson Julie Moult said the program was part of a broader effort to create a safe school environment.
“The FCPS Social Media monitoring program is in the developmental stage and is intended to protect students and staff from potential safety threats through early notification and response,” Moult said in a statement provided to Gadget Clock.
“As this program develops, it will be supported by regulation and procedures. It is only a part of our comprehensive safety and security program that focuses on a safe school environment.”
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According to the RFP, the project is scheduled to end either on Oct. 31, 2023, or when expenditures total $ 200,000.
But for Parents Defending Education (PDE), which identified the RFP for Gadget Clock, FCPS ‘would-be monitoring constitutes an affront to First Amendment rights.
“Unfortunately for FCPS, students and their parents have First Amendment rights too,” said PDE President and Founder Nicole Neily.
“The district intends to spend taxpayer funds to monitor and chill constitutionally-protected speech. Efforts to chill speech through Orwellian programs like this have rightly been challenged – and struck down – by courts around the country.”
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PDE Vice President of Investigations Asra Nomani similarly suggested the school district was participating in a broader trend of “Big Brother Surveillance” in the education wars. “Big Brother surveillance is part of a national campaign by teachers’ unions, activists and government officials to intimidate parents into silence,” she said in a statement provided to Gadget Clock.
In its RFP, FCPS declined to provide information on how it currently monitors threats. “This is out of scope for this RFP,” it said.
News reports have also indicated that students continue to face race-based harassment. According to NBC News, the CRT issue flared in a Texas school district after a video surfaced in 2018 showing two students chanting the n-word. When the district responded with a “Cultural Competency Action Plan,” parents revolted, and the diversity issue reportedly became the focal point of typically low-key elections. The US Department of Education later said it was pursuing multiple investigations related to discrimination.
PDE’s concerns echo those heard when the Justice Department announced it would investigate school board opposition. While Attorney General Merrick Garland maintained that he was not targeting peaceful speech, his memo came just after a highly controversial letter from the National School Boards Association (NSBA).
The NSBA similarly maintained it was not interested in quashing peaceful resistance but raised alarm bells when it referenced the Patriot Act and suggested potential domestic terrorism.
It’s unclear what exactly FCPS considers to be “harassment,” but the proposal comes amid concerns about how school officials view parents’ opposition to critical race theory (CRT) and mask mandates.
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Last year, NSBA and DOJ referenced alleged intimidation of school officials – prompting questions about what types of actions they were referencing and whether that included constitutionally protected speech.
The NSBA, in its now-infamous letter to President Biden, had cited several news reports on purported disruption at school board meetings – including, for example, a man reportedly charged with aggravated battery and disorderly conduct after attending a meeting. It also referenced a father whose daughter was later discovered to have been sexually assaulted in a Loudoun County Public Schools bathroom.
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