Racist incidents during remote learning mar the start of the Oregon school year

By Jenn Chávez (OPB) and Crystal Ligori (OPB)
Sept. 26, 2020 1 p.m.

As most students attend school virtually this fall, that’s given way to a slew of racist incidents in online classes.

Most of Oregon’s schools are now back in session, but with all but one county failing to meet state criteria for in-person learning in July, almost every class for the fall is being held online.


And that has opened the door to a slew of racist incidents in school districts across the state.

On the first day of school in Lake Oswego High School, an offensive racial slur was posted under a student’s name in the chat window of a virtual classroom. Meanwhile, at the middle school, two people signed into a virtual class and repeatedly said an anti-Black racist slur.

Racist outbursts and intrusions in online classes and meetings have been happening in districts around the Portland metro area. OPB learned of incidents within Portland Public Schools, as well as in the David Douglas, North Clackamas and Tigard-Tualatin school districts. School officials have said that in some cases, the statements appear to have come from students. But on closer examination, some incidents were likely the result of a student’s account or the virtual classroom being hacked.

Susan Barnard is the director of technology for the Tigard Tualatin School District and serves on the board of the Association of Computer Professionals in Education. She spoke with OPB host Jenn Chávez about how schools can prevent these cyber-interruptions and how teachers can address the racism at the core of the incidents.

Jenn Chávez: Why are schools susceptible to these technology breaches?


Susan Barnard: Essentially, we’ve got some virtual tools we’re trying to use to conduct online school, where we’ve got some direct instruction happening with teachers and students in class conversations taking place. Depending on the tool that they’re using — there’s Zoom, Google Meet, there’s Webex - there are loopholes in the way that you use them. There’s opportunities for invitations to be shared out to people that may not have been invited. Our issue was call-ins. One of the loopholes we found was that [call-ins] don’t require any kind of password and they don’t have to be invited in, they’re just automatically dropped into the meeting.

Not everybody has a strong internet connection at home, and even if they do, if there’s five people in their home trying to host a video meeting at the same time, some times that network connection is not as strong as it needs to be to participate in a half an hour video call. So some families choose to call-in so they could at least participate in the audio.

The tool that we’re using allowed us to turn that feature off. But unfortunately it ties our hands for those families that needed to use that to call-in to participate in the classroom conversations.

Chávez: How should educators be responding to the racism in these online spaces?

Barnard: Given our times right now, politically [and] culturally in the Portland area in particular, it’s a pretty charged environment. We’ve been working in our school district for the last couple of years around anti-bias work, anti-racist work. But with that comes a lot of training and discussion and making sure that our teachers are comfortable and have been given the opportunity for training around having that conversation with students.

We’re all in education, so in a perfect world when something like that happens, it becomes an opportunity to make it a teaching moment. But because of the potential for the emotional impact to some of the kids, it’s very challenging.

We’ve had some conversations internally after [our] incident, and there’s a variety of different perspectives at the table. There’s the technical one. There’s the social emotional perspective. There’s the training and the curriculum of anti-bias work that we’re [working on] in our district. So it’s multifaceted.

Chávez: How can racist intrusions be prevented in online academic spaces?

Barnard: One of the biggest things is keeping the kids in their school district issued accounts and on their school district issued devices. Then making sure that teachers have some control and awareness of how to use a tool to let those [people] in that are supposed to be there, and then know what to do if somebody ends up in their meeting that shouldn’t be there.

I think these first few weeks of school are getting a little smoother every day, but it’s not perfect. This is such a new time for us and we are in a space that we’ve just never been before. And these are the types of things that can really make a lasting impact, depending on how we respond to them and then how we help prevent them.