An alleged phone call from the NSA prompted public school officials in an Alabama school district to launch a surveillance program to monitor students' online activities, administrators of the Huntsville City School District now admit.
The NSA allegedly took an interest in the Lee High School student body after Auseel Yousefi, a straight-A student, posted a series of questionable tweets about getting into fights and hitting a teacher. Yousefi claims the tweets were intended in jest, but school security officials searched the student's car and found a weapon, which he says is a "jeweled dagger from a Renaissance fair."
That was all the evidence school authorities needed to expel Yousefi for the semester and launch a district-wide information-gathering program aimed at discovering security threats and identifying gang members. The subsequent investigation led to a series of expulsions of students who were found posing on social media holding guns or throwing gang signs.
School administrators say the wider surveillance program was conducted at the behest of the NSA, but the security agency now denies it ever called the school.
"The National Security Agency has no record that it passed any information to the Huntsville school district, and the description of what supposedly occurred is inconsistent with NSA's practices," Vanee Vines, public affairs specialist with the NSA, told Fusion in a written statement. "If NSA personnel were to learn about a possible threat to a person’s safety, such information would normally be provided to the federal agency or department that has subject matter responsibility for acting on the threat information. Moreover, NSA does not make recommendations regarding school safety programs.”
Huntsville schools superintendent Casey Wardynski disputes the NSA's account. He says the NSA contacted school administrators because they believed there was a "foreign connection" between Yousefi and an individual in Yemen. A spokesman for the school district told Fusion the call was received from someone identifying themselves as an NSA employee who called from a Washington phone number to discuss Yousefi's case.
Yousefi is an American-born U.S. citizen with two Yemeni parents. He lived in Yemen for only six months as a toddler, doesn't speak Arabic, and never returned to his parents' native country after moving back to the U.S., he told local publication AL.com.
Fusion tried to speak with Yousefi about the incident, but he said his mother advised him not to discuss the issue with the media.
On his Facebook page, the Yousefi told friends that he doesn't hold any ill-will towards the school district for his expulsion.
"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," he wrote.
Still, he wonders why he — of all people— was watched so closely online.
"I feel as though a lot of my situation had to do with racial profiling," he told AL.com. "People said way worse things than me and never got in trouble."
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.