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NIU officials deny placing students on social media 'watch lists' after Twitter account sparks rumors

Twitter account sparks rumors; dean says university only sees social media posts if university is tagged

Students walk on the Northern Illinois University campus Feb. 21 outside of the Holmes Student Center in DeKalb.
Students walk on the Northern Illinois University campus Feb. 21 outside of the Holmes Student Center in DeKalb.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois University officials said in a statement that school administrators have not been placing students on social media “watch lists,” or monitoring their social media accounts, after rumors swirled on social media that some students are being targeted.

“A rumor began circulating today on social media alleging that Northern Illinois University has a ‘watch list’ where university officials monitor the social media accounts of our students,” a news release from the university stated. “This is inaccurate, and we want to put an end to this rumor with facts.”

A Twitter account with the handle @NoNIUWatchlist began tweeting about 12:45 p.m. Friday about certain students – including ones affiliated with Greek organizations, athletes and those enrolled in the Counseling, Help and Assistance Necessary for a College Education program – being placed on social media “watch lists.”

The account then began to publish more than two dozen pages, showing headings, “First Name,” “Last Name,” “Reason” and “Alert.” No names were listed, but under “Reason,” sports and Greek organizations appeared. The lists appeared to be from the alleged “watch lists.”

NIU is one of about 800 colleges and universities across the nation that uses Maxient software to record incidents and hold reports specifically related to student misconduct, discipline, academic integrity, care-and-concern records and Title IX matters.

“Being able to document these incidents assists university officials in complying with legal obligations, identifying students in distress, coordinating various departments to provide assistance and support, and reducing outcomes that could negatively impact our students or community,” the release stated.

The software does not monitor any form of social media, said dean of students Kelly Wesener Michael, who also is associate vice president for student affairs.

“We respect students’ right to their privacy,” Wesener Michael said. “The only way we know about their social media is if they tag the university.”

She described Maxient as an “electronic filing cabinet.” The term “watch list,” which the school uses to inform appropriate campus administrators of incidents that involve students or organizations for which they are responsible, is the name of a module within the software.

The proprietary name caught people’s attention, and Wesener Michael said she understands why they would be concerned.

“This is an opportunity for us to really take a look at our policies and procedures around notification systems and make sure we come up with a clear communication strategy so students understand what we do and why we do it,” she said.

“While all NIU students are held to the standards outlined in the NIU Student Code of Conduct, groups such as NCAA athletes, fraternities and sororities, or students participating in particular support programs have different compliance requirements or protocols related to reporting and responding,” the release stated, referring to athletes, Greek students and perhaps students participating in the CHANCE program.

Students held to specific standards are informed of those standards by the organization they are joining before they are monitored, Wesener Michael said. The university’s role is to use the Maxient software to track those standards.

“These administrators include compliance officers and counselors,” according to the statement. “This notification aids in our proactive efforts to support students, helping to identify those in distress and coordinating the efforts of various departments to provide follow-up.”

And the follow-up varies, depending on the situation and the program.

The Twitter account used hashtags such as #SaveNIU and #FreedomofAssociation to emphasize its point.

NIU officials said in the statement they seek to support the safety and well-being of their students and respect their privacy.

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