‘Zoom-bombers’ hi­jack on­line classes at sub­ur­ban mid­dle school, spew racist rants

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY MADE­LINE KENNEY, STAFF RE­PORTER mken­ney@sun­times.com | @mad­ken­ney

The first day of on­line learn­ing pro­vided an im­por­tant les­son for a group of north­west sub­ur­ban mid­dle school stu­dents last week, but it wasn’t the one their teach­ers in­tended.

In­stead, some stu­dents at Emer­son Mid­dle School in Niles got a les­son in dig­i­tal se­cu­rity and racism.

Dur­ing the first day of e-learn­ing Thurs­day, classes were hi­jacked by an un­known hacker who used “in­ap­pro­pri­ate, racist, re­li­gious, hate­ful and ho­mo­pho­bic lan­guage,” ac­cord­ing to an email Emer­son prin­ci­pal Sa­man­tha Alaimo sent to fam­i­lies Thurs­day. The hacker used the n-word and talked about re­sum­ing slav­ery.

Sim­i­lar dis­turb­ing in­ci­dents hap­pened again Fri­day, ac­cord­ing to a sec­ond email sent to fam­i­lies.

Peter Gill, a spokesman for School District 64 in Park Ridge, which in­cludes Emer­son, said there were five sep­a­rate hack­ing in­ci­dents on Thurs­day, and an ad­di­tional four on Fri­day. It’s un­clear if the same hacker was be­hind all of them.

Alaimo con­demned the hate­ful speech used by the so-called in­truder.

“We stand in sol­i­dar­ity with our Black stu­dents, our stu­dents of color, and their fam­i­lies as they are re­peat­edly tar­gets of racism in our so­ci­ety,” Alaimo wrote.

The school is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the in­ci­dents and work­ing to iden­tify the of­fend­ers. It’s also of­fer­ing sup­port ser­vices to stu­dents whose classes were im­pacted by the hack, the email said.

The school said it will con­tinue to use Zoom for its on­line learn­ing amid the pan­demic. Alaimo stressed the im­por­tance of not shar­ing stu­dents’ user­names or pass­words with any­one, in­clud­ing fam­ily mem­bers other than par­ents.

“We’ve got eight schools, and this hap­pened at one of the schools, and I’m not try­ing to min­i­mize it be­cause it’s cer­tainly not good,” Gill told the Sun-Times in a phone in­ter­view. “[But] we’re pretty con­fi­dent we’ll be able to move for­ward with this and do some­thing to en­sure a safe en­vi­ron­ment for the kids.”

“Zoom-bomb­ing” — or the un­wanted, dis­rup­tive in­ter­rup­tion by hack­ers dur­ing on­line video con­fer­ence calls — has be­come an in­creas­ing prob­lem since March, when mil­lions of peo­ple be­gan us­ing such apps to con­nect with fam­ily, friends, col­leagues and oth­ers while prac­tic­ing so­cial dis­tanc­ing dur­ing the pan­demic.

Emer­son isn’t the only school that has had is­sues with un­wel­come in­trud­ers hi­jack­ing on­line classes this school year.

Tony San­ders, su­per­in­ten­dent of School District U-46 in El­gin, said there have been at least two in­stances last week when unau­tho­rized peo­ple dis­rupted on­line classes. San­ders didn’t pro­vide de­tails but said the district was aware that stu­dents had shared the Zoom link to their class with other stu­dents, and the links “were then used in­ap­pro­pri­ately.”

A sim­i­lar oc­cur­rence also hap­pened in Glen­view School District 34 last week, said Cathy Ked­jid­jian, the school district’s di­rec­tor of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and strate­gic plan­ning.

She didn’t pro­vide de­tails but said the district be­lieves a stu­dent or a few stu­dents shared a Zoom link to their class­rooms and teach­ers mis­took the vis­i­tor as a new stu­dent. The district has since changed its se­cu­rity mea­sures, which in­cludes adding pass­word pro­tec­tion for all classes that is shared in a se­cured stu­dent por­tal, Ked­jid­jian said.

In April, ad­min­is­tra­tors at New Trier High School and Win­netka School District 36 re­ported at least two such in­ci­dents to po­lice for crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Patch re­ported at the time.

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Emer­son Mid­dle School in Niles.

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