Polytech class ‘Zoom-bombed’ with racist message, districts take safeguards

WOODSIDE — A virtual Polytech group was “Zoom-bombed” last week with a racist message heard during the remote session, officials said.

“The Polytech School District takes this issue seriously, and prioritizes a safe and supportive culture for all students, staff and stakeholders,” said Nick Johnson, a spokesman for the district, Wednesday in an email.

The incident occurred Tuesday, Oct. 6, when a someone “outside of the Polytech domain accessed the meeting,” Mr. Johnson said. A Snapchat video from a student in the class captured the audio, which was a threatening message that used a racist slur.

Mr. Johnson said that following the incident, counseling staff worked with those present and “have worked with students and families since to provide needed support.”

“Zoom-bombs” involve a typically third-party user accessing Zoom rooms to disrupt through unauthorized messages. A similar incident occurred in April during a local virtual conference call helping Black-owned businesses and organizations when a Zoom-bomber displayed a racist slur and porn.

While Polytech is utilizing the hybrid model, a portion of courses — like other districts in the state — remain remote, relying on Zoom for classes and more.

“We have made significant configuration changes and investments to prevent this from happening from users outside of the Polytech domain moving forward, as well as will certainly enforce our acceptable use policies and codes of conduct already in place, should someone within the Polytech domain choose to access another meeting or classroom inappropriately,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Johnson explained those changes involve tightening restrictions for those able to use Polytech Zoom meetings to be sure they are part of the school community.

It is the district’s “foundational priority to provide a safe and supportive culture for all students, staff and stakeholders,” he added.

“We pride ourselves on the atmosphere and environment put forth here, inspiring our diverse community of learners and strive to be better as an organization each day,” he said. “As stated in a letter sent by Dr. Ryan Fuller to the community on June 23, 2020, ‘…we are singularly focused on CHANGE,’ and have formed an Equity and Diversity Committee concentrating on instructional, relational and disciplinary changes to broaden instruction and develop restorative practices so that we may better meet the needs of every student.”

Statewide, there have been other disruptions.

Indian River School District has had a “a few isolated incidents of Zoom disruption,” typically in the high school setting, said David Maull, a spokesman for the district.

“Our instructional technology team has prepared and shared professional development modules and documents for instructional staff which share ‘best practices’ in order to assist them with preventing and handling disruptive incidents (such as ‘Zoom-bombing’),” he said in an email. “We have been monitoring these events as they are reported and have been modifying our settings to balance ease of use with security.”

He added that they have been working to identify teachers to pilot additional security measures, such as requiring participants to use an IRSD login page.

“This would be an additional option for security during certain Zoom meetings with a history of disruption,” he said.

Meanwhile, other districts haven’t had disruptive incidents.

While Milford School District isn’t utilizing Zoom for its remote courses, students and teachers must be authenticated with their district accounts when they log in to virtual meetings, said Trish Gerken, a spokeswoman for the district.

“Anyone outside of our district would need to request access to any meeting,” she said. “In the event we ever experience technical difficulties, any type of inappropriate activity, or security risks with our remote learning platforms we would immediately postpone all activity and reschedule for participants.”

Sussex Tech hasn’t experienced “Zoom-bombing” its high school or Adult Education programs, said Dan Shortridge, a spokesman for the district, citing Zoom and district security measures.

“If an incident were to occur and a student were responsible, it would be handled through appropriate disciplinary channels,” he said.

Out of caution, Caesar Rodney School District’s instructional technology staff worked “very hard to lock up our Zoom settings before the academic year started in September,” said Mike Williams, a spokesman for the district, in an email.

“They spent many hours working with technicians from Zoom to ensure we had our privacy and access settings correct,” he said. “We are confident we have not have any outside ‘Zoom Bombers.’ With our current log-in settings, students are forced to log-in with their personal Google accounts. This has made the system much more secure.”

Various videos and how-to guides were released so teachers know what settings to have on and off, he said.

Smyrna likewise has experienced no issues thus far.