A Berkeley High virtual class was infiltrated by a nude “Zoombomber,” prompting BUSD to suspend all live online lessons. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
A Berkeley High virtual class was infiltrated by a nude “Zoombomber,” prompting BUSD to suspend all live online lessons. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Just two days into its “distance learning” program, Berkeley Unified has suspended its use of video conferencing platforms after a naked adult “Zoombomber” infiltrated a lesson.

The nude man entered into a virtual Berkeley High class and used racial slurs, Principal Erin Schweng said in an email to the school community.

Berkeley Police Department spokesman Officer Byron White said detectives are reviewing the case, but called it “a unique situation” that poses new challenges for investigators. BPD is still looking into exactly what crime was committed, and what police can do about it, given that Zoom is a “third-party company,” he said.

In its COVID-19 educational plan, BUSD had required all teachers to hold live “office hours” for students using services like Zoom and Google Meet. It wasn’t just the “illegal activity from an adult” that created issues off the bat, said Superintendent Brent Stephens in an email to BUSD families Tuesday night.

“In two incidents, students behaved inappropriately, forcing teachers to end instructional sessions,” he said.

Stephens told families that he’s asked teachers to stop using video conferences “while we look into whether we can truly assure student safety in this context.” Instead, teachers will continue to provide assignments — such as recorded lectures and online worksheets — that don’t require live interaction. In a statement shared with Berkeleyside on Wednesday, BUSD said it hopes the Zoom suspension will only last a few days. (In a message posted after publication, BUSD laid out additional steps it’s taking in the meantime.)

Districts and schools across the country, from New York City to Los Angeles, have experienced similar problems with services like Zoom, and several like BUSD have either canceled online classes or switched to other platforms thought to be more secure. The FBI has even warned schools about the threat of Zoombombing, reporting that Zoombombers have displayed swastikas and revealed a teacher’s home address during various class meetings.

Stephens said BUSD had “put many controls in place that we had thought would protect our online sessions.” According to Schweng, the teacher of the class that got Zoombombed had not only password-protected the session but also enabled a “waiting room,” which allows hosts to individually grant participants entry.

The principal said her heart felt heavy after hearing about the incident.

“It is deeply concerning to me that even when our staff member did everything the district had asked in terms of online safety, Zoom was still not a safe environment for our kids,” Schweng said in the email. “Many staff members have expressed genuine heartbreak that they cannot connect with their students as much this week as they had hoped.”

The Berkeley School Board — which itself meets on Zoom — is expected to vote to keep schools closed for the rest of the semester next week. Image: Zoom

The teacher of the disrupted class notified administrators, who notified the police, said BUSD in a statement shared with Berkeleyside. “The teacher also reached out to students explaining what happened and offering counseling support to students who were upset. Parents and caregivers were also notified,” the statement said.

BPD’s White said he didn’t know whether the Berkeley High Zoombomber was someone affiliated with the school who got ahold of the password, or an unrelated individual who hacked into the meeting. (BUSD said administrators believe the log-in information could have been shared publicly by someone with access to it, but the district doesn’t know whether the man had any connection to the school.) He said BPD officers themselves have had to learn how to safely use the service while working from home.

As the use of Zoom has surged during the coronavirus pandemic, concerns about the software’s security have also arisen. Security analysts have criticized its lack of encryption and privacy controls, and Zoombombers have popped up in countless meetings, disrupting sessions with behavior that ranges from goofy to pornographic.

In response, Zoom has said it has tightened privacy controls and dealt with loopholes.

These incidents are roadblocks for BUSD, which like other districts scrambled to shift hundreds of classes online after schools closed and the governor required distance learning. Just before spring break, the district released its educational plan, after working closely with the teacher’s union, launching a massive meal and technology distribution program, and receiving pressure from parents who were struggling to homeschool kids. Administrators and teachers spent the break last week furiously preparing to implement the plan, which includes weekly assignments per grade level or course and the live online office hours.

On Tuesday night, Stephens also announced that he will recommend to the School Board on April 15 that campuses stay closed for the remainder of the academic year — an expected decision, but one that confirms that distance learning will be the only formal education Berkeley students receive until the fall.

Many parents have harshly criticized the decision to suspend live classes, saying the district should be able to figure out something that doesn’t eliminate direct teacher interaction for thousands of students. They said the office-hour guarantee provided some much-needed stability and structure for kids and parents floundering during the shutdown.

“Online classes were my daughter’s lifeline to her first grade class,” said parent Michael Wallman in an email.

The Zoom issues will undoubtedly come up at an online “town hall” BUSD will hold Thursday from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. — ironically on Zoom.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...