School district officials concerned over allegations of social media ‘spying’


FORT MYERS

School District of Lee County officials are concerned their own communications office has monitored private citizens on social media.

It came up in a school board workshop last month. Since then, a district employee filed a whistleblower complaint. It claims workers were instructed to “spy” on the public.

Paul Barnes has had four children go through the Lee County school system, and he has vented on Facebook about the district for years.

“Did I ever suspect that they were monitoring my every post on Facebook and social media,” Barnes asked. “No, I’m more upset right now than ever.”

Previous Coverage: Lee County school district accused of spying on social media

One district employee reached a breaking point earlier this year. They filed a whistleblower complaint, revealing their “mental health had degraded” because what they were doing was “morally wrong.”

The complaint says communications staff were instructed to “scour” media outlet posts, copy and paste “accompanying public comments” and send the findings to several people in communications.

During WINK News’ investigation, investigative reporter Peter Fleischer obtained more than 100 social media posts, including those of WINK News, and more than 800 public comments that were allegedly monitored and archived by district staff dating back to 2019.

Barnes’ Facebook comments were included.

“They’re not my daddy,” Barnes vented. “You shouldn’t be watching what we do on social media. It’s none of your business! How about you focus on educating our children?”

Publicly, Director of Strategic Communications Irma Lancaster denied the monitoring to school board members on May 24, 2021. District 6 member Betsy Vaughn asked Lancaster, “it’s somebody in-house that would be doing that?”

Lancaster responded, “I’m not aware of anyone in house professionally that would be doing that; however, anyone can go online and do their own research.”

But behind closed doors, there’s a different sentiment.

“Honestly, I feel like that was misleading,” Vaughn told WINK News in a recent interview.

School board members Betsy Vaughn and Melisa Giovannelli say they have seen numerous archived posts and comments. They feel it crosses the line from watching media content to invading a private space.

“What’s going on is, did so and so make a negative comment about the district? Or a school? I really feel like that’s too invasive,” Vaughn said.

“It’s wrong in so many ways,” Giovannelli said about monitoring private citizens. “You should not be using public funds for public service against the public we serve.”

Lee County school district social media guidelines don’t directly mention social media monitoring, but it does say “employees, excluding those who have permission to post on official school and district social media accounts, should refrain from visiting social media sites during student contact hours.”

According to their own guidelines, communications employees should not be on social media at work unless posting on official district accounts.

“I’m very concerned over the fact that we could be using public dollars and resources that belong to the people, against those very people,” Vaughn admitted.

The district also has a contract with an outside marketing firm, and Lancaster has admitted the top benefit of that contract is media monitoring.

“The top three services that we’ve used in communications has been media monitoring,” Lancaster told Vaughn on May 24, 2021.

So WINK News requested every file the company sent the district related to media monitoring from October and November of 2021. We got dozens of coverage reports with links to news stories, but there was no social media content or public comments included.

Given that, why would district employees be instructed to do the same, and include private citizens in their data collection?

Vaughn has questions.

“Why are we doing this? what are we gaining from it? and how much are we really spending?”

“I don’t think anybody should be monitoring anybody,” Giovannelli said.

WINK News also obtained an email that appears to show staff being instructed to comment on a Facebook post inside a private group, and the whistleblower complaint claims district officials were aware of specific “troublemakers” online.

Board members say this recent evidence confirms their fears and they wonder how deep the monitoring goes.

“I knew that it had happened,” Vaughn says. “That people had their own accounts monitored in some way. As a matter of fact, I had reason to believe that I had been monitored.”

Giovannelli was also concerned: “We’re not the police. People have the right to speak and say what they choose to say.”

Giovannelli did express optimism that the district will have a fresh direction under new leadership, and hopes to put these concerns in the rearview mirror.

WINK News reached out to Lee Schools communications staff and asked why this information was monitored and archived, but they declined our request for an interview. The district did not have an update on the investigation into the spying concerns.

We spoke with numerous school board members for this story: All of them confirmed some knowledge of the spying allegations, but some of them did not feel comfortable enough to speak with us on-camera.

WINK News plans to follow up with school district officials after our story. We will continue to bring you the latest information as it becomes available.


Copyright 2022 Fort Myers Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.