Ontario schools dealing with swearing and racial slurs in virtual classrooms

During the short stint of remote learning in Ontario, some school boards are dealing with people entering virtual classrooms uninvited to swear, use racial slurs and share "disturbing and graphic images."

'Zoom bombing' has happened in online classrooms in Hamilton and Windsor

School boards in Hamilton and Windsor have dealt with people 'Zoom bombing' virtual classrooms to swear, use racial slurs and share disturbing images. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

During a short stint of remote learning in Ontario, some school boards are dealing with people entering virtual classrooms uninvited to swear, use racial slurs and share "disturbing and graphic images."

Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) in Windsor and Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) in Hamilton both had incidents in the past week.

GECDSB spokesperson Scott Scantlebury says a high school using Microsoft Teams dealt with one brief "uninvited intrusion during a class last week" that involved inappropriate language. He didn't have a full report of the incident, but said the school contacted affected families.

Some people refer to it as "Zoom bombing," a reference to the video communication software called Zoom. There have been similar incidents in online vigils and provincial courts.

HWDSB says it's investigating a racist incident that took place in an online elementary school class last Thursday.

The board says someone got access to a Collegiate Elementary School virtual classroom and "used anti-Black racial slurs and other inappropriate language, and shared disturbing and graphic images."

HWDSB spokesperson Shawn McKillop says the board apologized for the incident and had social workers offering support.

The board says it also reported the incident to Hamilton Police Service, which says it's continuing to investigate.

The board also thought it was an isolated incident — but it wasn't.

Second virtual class faced racial slurs

On Wednesday, Jeremy Reece said his daughter, a Grade 7 student at Ridgemount Elementary School, had a similar experience the day before the Collegiate incident.

He said a supply teacher was running the class when someone got into the virtual class room and started swearing and using racial slurs.

The board wasn't aware of the incident until receiving questions from CBC Hamilton on Friday.

Hamilton-Wentworth school board.
Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board dealt with two 'Zoom bombing' incidents in one week. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The news prompted a letter from HWDSB to families on Monday. The board said it was "closer to understanding these breaches did not come from an external source."

HWDSB didn't elaborate, but apologized to families and students affected. It also said the incidents aren't common in remote learning, and educators are aware of enhanced security settings in MS Teams.

"We commit to our families that we will always take these online concerns seriously and support to students will always be available," the board said in the letter.

Police say they haven't received a report about this incident.

Parents are concerned

Reece says the incident left him "concerned." 

"What if somebody had come in and didn't do anything, didn't say anything, just sat there and listened and collected information on these kids?" he said.

Reece says he fears that a child predator could have somehow gained access to the call.

Karen Louise Smith, an assistant professor at Brock University who researches online privacy, says there are some commonly recommended steps to prevent these incidents in Microsoft Teams. This includes creating a lobby, which means the teacher approves every person who enters the virtual classroom.

"It's important to recognize that some of these 'fixes' are very labour intensive for teachers who are already busy trying to teach and engage their students during the Omicron wave of the pandemic," she said in an email.

Expert says tech companies need to do more

Smith says instead of relying on teachers to moderate, software vendors should do more.

"Software companies who are providing cloud software like Office 365 to Ontario school boards really need to take responsibility to make security features simple and easy to use," she said.

Smith suggests an option that would restrict access to users with logins associated with a certain class.

Microsoft told CBC Hamilton in a statement it cares about the "trust and safety of our community of educators, learners and families, and work closely with our customers to address their concerns."

The company offers tips to secure virtual classrooms and prevent uninvited guests from joining.

Some features include allowing the meeting organizer to let in  students, not allowing anyone to join over the phone, the ability to mute users and delete messages.

Microsoft's website says more than 270,000 educational organizations use Microsoft Teams.

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Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.