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Area schools see hackers or intruders using racial slurs and other offensive language and images

PMG PHOTO: KRISTEN WOHLERS - Students start the school year virtually, partly through the use of Zoom, where several school districts have encountered offensive intruders.

A group of Baker Prairie Middle School seventh-graders logged into Zoom for an advisory class on the first day of school, Sept. 17, only to be met by profane speech from an unknown individual that resulted in an abrupt end to the class period.

At least eight more "Zoom bombings" would follow in the Canby School District, with comments consisting mostly of swearing or other offensive language, according to district spokesperson Autumn Foster.

The next week, on Sept. 22, some Molalla River Middle School students hopped on Zoom for their second day of school when an inappropriate image of a sexual nature popped up from a student account. That class ended early, too.

Similar instances took place in Lake Oswego School District Sept. 8. In a high school class, an intruder posing as a student responded to a teacher comment in Google Classrooms chat saying, "f*ck you" and using the N-word. And in a junior high Zoom class that day, another intruder said the N-word about 30 times.

In all cases, the school districts launched investigations.

In Canby, completed investigations have revealed that intruders are attempting to join meetings using names they hope will fool the staff member who is running the meeting to allow them entry, Foster said.

In Molalla, the incident is still under investigation. And in Lake Oswego, both instances involved hackers or intruders.

The events are not isolated as other school districts across the region and the country are encountering similar problems.

"We've heard of incidents like this occurring in other districts as their school years began earlier in September, but unfortunately, it's now happened here," Molalla Superintendent Tony Mann said, "and I am sad."

The events are not only disrupting learning, they are affecting students, teachers and staff members. In emails sent to students and families, Canby teachers said the situations were upsetting.

In the Lake Oswego High School incident, student A'jialia McClure, the only Black student in her class, felt targeted by the racial slur. Since the class was asynchronous, or not happening in real time, the teacher did not see the comment immediately but took it down as soon as she found it, approximately 8-15 minutes after it was posted, according to LOSD Superintendent Lora de la Cruz.

"The bigger issue is the pain that was both caused by these incidents," de la Cruz said. "I understand that no matter the circumstances, racist language is hurtful and causes trauma and great negative impact, and I am deeply sorry that our students witnessed these incidents and were negatively impacted by them."

While most of these incidents took place in Zoom settings, Zoom is not necessarily the problem, according to Foster. She said other platforms are just as susceptible to "attacks from those who wish to disrupt our environment."

So, in addition to investigations, the school districts are working to prevent future occurrences.

"As a primary focus, we are working with staff to ensure they make time to review the roster of their online meetings and only permit enrolled students into the class," Foster said. "We're also working to ensure that staff can question students who are in a Zoom waiting room to be sure they're who they say they are. Finally, the district is reevaluating our security settings. We may have to require additional authentication from attendees to prove they are a Canby student. This could include meeting passcodes or additional log-in information."

Students can also help contribute to a safe learning space by not sharing Zoom meeting links with outsiders and making sure their log-in name matches the name on the class roster, Baker Prairie Principal Jennifer Turner suggested in a newsletter.

"Our district is working to provide the tools teachers need to prevent intruders from disrupting our classes and evaluating security settings to ensure all students can easily access their classes," Foster said, "while safeguarding these virtual meetings.

"We believe the additional security steps teachers are taking will help prevent these incidents moving forward."

Lake Oswego Review reporter Asia Alvarez Zeller contributed to this story.

Kristen Wohlers
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