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Virtual classes interrupted by Zoom bombers


Teachers strive to make their students feel safe and create an environment where they can learn, grow and succeed. However, this sense of security was diminished for Gunn senior Andrew Kim, when his Graphic Design class was bombarded with racial slurs and images of swastikas. 

As students transition to a full distance learning format and adapt to Zoom, the district’s chosen video communication platform, Palo Alto community members have raised concerns regarding Zoom’s security following two incidents at Gunn High School and one incident at Palo Alto High School.

Zoom bombing, a term used to describe a situation when an uninvited person hijacks and disrupts a Zoom meeting, occurred at Gunn High School twice during the first week of classes. Zoom bombers from Romania and New York accessed course Zoom links and disrupted classes, making racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments. 

Senior Andrew Kim, a student of the Gunn graphic design class, was jarred by the school’s inability to stop the zoom bombers.

“The feeling that security was not there and the feeling of vulnerability was detrimental to our ability to focus and study,” Kim said. 

Following the incidents at Gunn, the district worked with site administration to investigate the locations of the Zoom bombers, according to PAUSD’s Chief Technology Officer Derek Moore. The district concluded the bombers were not a part of PAUSD and subsequently handed the case over to Zoom. Zoom was able to identify the bombers and banned them from accessing all ends of the platform permanently.

“It’s a huge balancing act,” Moore said. “Being a K-12 district, we need to make it easy enough for students with less technology skills to access their learning, but not easy enough for bad actors to access the meetings.”

Because of incidents like the ones that occurred for Gunn students, Zoom has updated its security — implementing Waiting Rooms and adding default passwords for all meetings. Although the tightening of security prevents Zoom bombers from accessing meetings as easily as they did before, added measures have also complicated attending classes.

“The security features of Zoom add an extra layer that makes it more difficult to get into meetings and access their learning,” Moore said. “Trying to figure out the right balance for us as an organization to meet the needs of students on all ends of the spectrum has been an interesting challenge.” 

Moore said the district has created a presentation for teachers outlining the security features of Zoom, instructing teachers on how to enable the waiting room, require a meeting password, disable private chats and lock the meeting. These are security measures that teachers should consider taking to prevent Zoom bombings from occurring, he said.

Moore also said students should authenticate themselves by logging in through the PAUSD portal, as this is the only way teachers can identify students and allow them into meetings.

However, not all of PAUSD’s Zoom bombings have been conducted externally. In Paly chemistry teacher Aparna Sankararaman’s class, a Zoom bomber blasted loud music, interrupting her lecture. This time, however, the Zoom bomber was a Paly student.

“I don’t know if this Zoom bomber thought that their identity was safe because they changed their name, but on my report, your [student] email address [is logged]. I can see your first initial, your last initial, and your student ID,” Sankararaman said.

Sankararaman sent this information to Tom Keating, Paly’s Assistant Principal, who handled the situation in accordance with the district’s disciplinary policies.

At the end of every meeting, teachers receive Zoom reports, mainly for the purpose of attendance, that display who logged in and how long they logged in for. Sankararaman was surprised to see that very few of her students were aware that teachers received these reports. 

“Students don’t know that we have this information,” Sankararaman said. “If a Zoom bombing happens, we have everything we need to track the student down.”

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