Embattled Fairfax County Public Schools in northern Virginia has published a request for proposal to pay up to $200,000 for “Social Media Management Services” that will “monitor social media threats, harassment, hate speech and bullying” for its Office of Safety and Security, including through “active listening,” “deep and dark web sources not visible through traditional search engines” and “Open Source Intelligence.”
It further seeks to “classify aliases, usernames, emails [sic] websites, etc.” and “visually identify relationships and connections between persons.”
The school district’s request for proposal says it wants to protect “any students or teacher” within the school district, with no mention of parents, who have been targeted for attack for speaking out against school district policies, sometimes even from school district staff, raising issues about parent rights.
Local parents shared the “informal” request for proposal, or “RFP,” dated Nov. 30, 2021, with Parents Defending Education and expressed concern about the scope of the work the “Informal RFP3100000481” as a waste of money that should be spent on mitigating learning loss experienced during the Covid pandemic. The bidding process was extended to close on Feb. 2, 2022.
The technical requirements (page 7-8) for the “Social Media Management Services” reveal a plan that amounts to surveillance and intelligence gathering. They include:
- “All sourced data is in compliance with U.S. law, Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), publicly surges data.”
- “False positive reduction with embedded violence language classifier and metadata optimization technology.”
- “Automatically classify aliases, usernames, emails [sic] websites, etc.”
- “Visually identify relationships and connections between persons.”
- “Save search queries and set alerts for active listening.”
- “No limits on searches, or the amount of data that can be saved.”
- “24-hour alerts for preset rules and keyword groups.”
- “Ability to scan deep and dark web sources not visible through traditional search engines.”
- “Ability to produce a customizable report based on a disparate dataset with multiple origin points to produce a high-level summary.”
In response to a query from a parent about the contract, Tom Vaccarello, director of the FCPS Office of Safety and Security, claimed in an email (see complete email below):
“Only open/publicly posted social media postings will be seen/reviewed, and it does include afterhours monitoring.”
In fact, the RFP requests: “Ability to scan deep and dark web sources not visible through traditional search engines.”
Fairfax County Public Schools issued a statement that said:
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. 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.
The school district does not define what amounts to “harassment, hate speech and bullying” and parents raised concern that the contract amounts to wasteful spending actually designed to silence parents and combat the school district’s public relations failures, often pilloried on social media.
For example, on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, parents expressed outrage on social media as they learned about English curriculum approved by the school district, asking students to fill out a “privilege” bingo card that includes “Military Kid” as a privilege. In a departure from normal social media protocol, the school district tracked comments criticizing the “privilege” bingo card and posted comments about the criticism as a reply to tweets.
The effort to engage in reputation management, as it’s called in the communications industry, came after school districts and organizations, from the teachers’ unions to the National Association of School Boards, started lashing out at parents, who hold them accountable, often on social media, for failing students and families.
- On Sept. 29, 2021, the National Association of School Boards sent a now-infamous letter to President Joe Biden, equating opposing points of views to “domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
- On Oct. 8, 2021, Betsy Pringle, president of the National Education Association, one of the largest teachers’ union in the United States, published a letter to leaders at Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, urging them to “put an end to the stream of propaganda fueling violence against educators in our communities” and combat online trends that “have helped create a culture of fear and violence with educators as targets.”
- Less than two months later, on Nov. 30, 2021, Fairfax County Public Schools issued its request for proposal.
The “scope of services” (page 6) for the contract states:
The purpose of this Informal Request for Proposal is to solicit unsealed proposals to establish a contract or contracts through competitive negotiation for the provision of software that will allow Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) to expand social media research program in order 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.
The terms of service (page 6) state:
This contract will begin on date of award and terminate on October 31, 2023 or upon expenditures totaling no more than $200,000, whichever occurs first…FCPS reserves the right to renew the contract for three (3) additional one-year periods.
Addendum No. 1, posted on Dec. 22, 2021, reveal the school district’s mission is unfocused and unclear, as the school district attempts to use “racial” issues to monitor social media. It states:
December 22, 2021
ADDENDUM NO. 1
TO: ALL PROSPECTIVE OFFERORS
REFERENCE: Informal RFP 3100000481
FOR: Social Media Software
CLOSING DATE/TIME: February 2, 2022 at 2:00 p.m. (Revised)
The following are responses to questions received via e-mail and at the Pre-proposal Conference held on December 15, 2021:
Q3. Who is the ultimate end user for the product and how are they planning to use the
A3. the Office of Safety and Security for FCPS. We plan to monitor social media threats, harassment,
hate speech and bullying.
Q5. What is meant by “brand and product”? Is there a scenario you can provide?
A5. Brand is FCPS in general, and we’re looking for “social media listening” that targets FCPS “brand”.
Q12. It would be helpful to know where you expect the threats to come from, as it will help with
processing requirements. Is it specific to particular platforms (i.e. twitter, Facebook, Instagram,
A12. We do not have an expectation as to where the threats would come from. We are seeking a solution that will help us identify the threats from any public posts.
In his email, Tom Vaccarello, director of the FCPS Office of Safety and Security, repeated the talking points of the communications spokeswoman and made other points:
On Thursday, February 10, 2022, 8:54 PM, Vaccarello, Tom <[email protected]> wrote
I wanted to respond to your email to Jon regarding our current request for proposal on social media software. 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. As this program develops, it will be supported by regulation and procedures. Only open/publicly posted social media postings will be seen/reviewed, and it does include afterhours monitoring.
It is only a part of our comprehensive safety and security program that focuses on a safe school environment. I hope this information helps, and let me know if you have any questions.
- Fox News, “VA school district seeks ‘social media listening’ for ‘hate speech,’ to deter ‘negative actions’ towards staff. Critics say the proposal reeks of ‘Big Brother’ surveillance.” Feb. 10, 2022.
- Fairfax Times, “FCPS spends tax dollars on PR firm, proposes social media surveillance.” Feb. 10, 2022.