On Wednesday morning, a Newton South High School advanced placement Chinese class was underway on Zoom when hackers infiltrated the group, posting “vile, hate-filled images and speech” directed at the students, officials said.
The incident, which lasted about three minutes, was part of a phenomenon known as “Zoom-bombing,” when a Zoom call is hacked into by individuals who disrupt a meeting. It was also an example, school officials said, of coronavirus-related racism that has run rampant since the beginning of the pandemic, often directed at the Asian community.
Joel Stembridge, Newton South’s principal, wrote to the school community Thursday morning, calling the episode “clearly racist, hateful, and horrible.”
“This was a traumatic experience for our teacher and students, and we will continue to offer support to everyone involved,” Stembridge said via e-mail. “To be clear, an attack on members of our NSHS Asian-American community is an attack on all of us. We will be working on a plan for responding — I will share more about this soon.”
All Zoom meetings scheduled for Thursday were canceled, allowing the IT department and staff to check security protocols. Classes were to resume Friday, said Julie McDonough, a school spokeswoman.
“Our counseling staff is reaching out to every student today," McDonough said. “We are scheduling a meeting with student leaders and teachers to plan a response. Hate speech and racism have no place at South and won’t be tolerated.”
School officials notified students’ families and local police, who were investigating. Teachers and students were working with officials to gather information about the intruders, who did not appear to be associated with the high school, according to Stembridge’s e-mail.
The intruders may have accessed the meeting through a link to the call that was created before security updates were made in recent weeks, Stembridge said. Hundreds of calls had been successful prior to the incident, he added.
The intrusion comes as millions of people adopt the online platform for work or education. Since the pandemic started, Zoom has struggled to keep up with security features to prevent such incidents.
After two Massachusetts schools reported “Zoom-bombing" in March, FBI officials in Boston urged users to take security precautions, such as sending links to participants directly instead of posting links in publicly available areas and making sure users have the most current version of Zoom’s teleconferencing software.
“This is a trying time for all of us, and events such as these underscore the fragility of this new environment in which we are working,” Stembridge wrote. “We’ll have more work to do to ensure that we can continue to support students and build a safe, connected online community.”