The block-long Berkeley High campus sits empty during the pandemic. Photo: Pete Rosos

One brief but impactful incident dominated the discourse and temporarily upended online learning in the Berkeley schools community last week: a nude Zoombomber reportedly invaded a virtual Berkeley High class and yelled slurs.

Berkeleyside has reviewed a video of the incident, which portrays a different scenario than Berkeley Unified and Berkeley High previously described.

In the recording, someone in a Zoom class shares their screen, playing a video of the comedian Beetlejuice — a member of radio host Howard Stern’s cohort and the subject of popular memes — who’s naked and dancing. In the recording, apparently made by a student who filmed their computer with their phone, the screen switches to the name of a Zoom user, then to the Berkeley High teacher, who keeps his cool while clearly startled. After some loud music plays, the Beetlejuice video comes back on briefly, portraying the naked comedian yelling out nonsense.

The actual Zoombomber is not visible, and there are no audible racial slurs.

The report of the Zoombombing prompted BUSD last week to suspend live online classes throughout the district on a temporary basis. Superintendent Brent Stephens said he could not continue to allow the use of a platform that might expose young children to the risk of naked intruders or worse.

The hiatus aggravated many parents, who said their families depended on direct contact with teachers and classmates during the crisis. The “distance learning” plan had only just gone into effect, after a difficult waiting period for many people. Several parents said they’d risk a nude interruption if it meant their kids could go to class.

A few days after the suspension, Stephens announced that BUSD would pick up live instruction where it left off, but switch to the more secure Google Meet platform.

No BUSD administrator has seen video of the Zoombombing incident, which was reported by the teacher, district spokeswoman Trish McDermott told Berkeleyside on Wednesday. But she said the new information would not have changed the district’s response.

A student told Berkeleyside that the video, which has made the rounds, was more amusing than disturbing to most of her peers, who recognized Beetlejuice.

But for administrators and the teacher of the Zoombombed class, the incident itself wasn’t as frightening as the security flaws it exposed.

“I think, if a teacher wasn’t reacting quickly, they could have gone into shock and who knows what the video would have turned into,” said the teacher, who asked not to be named. “People are quick to blame the district, but they did it for the protection of the kids. Our ultimate goal as teachers is to protect kids.”

For educators navigating a new virtual learning environment, they can feel a scary sense of powerlessness when it comes to making sure students are safe. If a suspicious character shows up at a brick-and-mortar classroom door, a teacher can simply close it — or call on colleagues and campus security if necessary. In the Berkeley High Zoom class, the person who played the Beetlejuice video used an unassuming name —not the name of a known student, but many students are using parents’ Zoom accounts so it didn’t stand out, the teacher said.

In the Zoom “waiting room” were several users with racist and xenophobic names, however, indicating a coordinated Zoombombing effort rather than a student playing a prank, the teacher said. Those users were not let into the class.

In an emailed statement, McDermott told Berkeleyside that “while it may have been unclear to the teacher whether this behavior was live or taped, or who the person featured was, it doesn’t change the serious disruption this incident and the risk of further incidents like this can create in live distance learning classrooms, and the District’s commitment to creating a secure and authenticated video conferencing learning environment for our students.”

After Berkeleyside asked about the discrepancies between how BUSD described the video and the video itself, Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng sent a message to families addressing them.

“Regardless of the origin of the content that day, it was disruptive and upsetting, and we want to prevent future incidents as much as it is within our power to do so,” she said.

The confusion may highlight one of the many challenges that come with the transition from traditional classrooms to online learning. Some students may be more literate in the new platforms and content than their educators are.

“I have been reflecting that as we adults enter this online world in new ways, it is certainly not new to our teens, and incidents like this one will reflect that,” Schweng wrote.

This week, the district has worked on reintroducing its full distance learning plan, providing weekly assignments for students and regularly scheduled live “office hours” with teachers. Stephens has said lessons will likely become both more consistent and tailored to individual classes as teachers, staff and students settle into a new routine — or as close to a routine as is possible during a pandemic.

“That is what matters to students — how are we going to get back to the normal reality,” the teacher said. “The naked dude is less of their worry moving forward.”

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,...