Google Meet-bombing incidents affirm the need to address racial inclusivity

By Lily Niziolek and Elizabeth Ryser, Features Editors

Over the last few months, issues of racism have taken center stage, as events like the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have provided evidence of systemic racism in America. To address this major concern in our society, schools like Maine South have been working to increase inclusivity. With the implementation of virtual classes, however, video conferencing inadvertently opened the doors to some of the societal injustices that the school seeks to protect students from.

Illustration by Isabel Gibson

Within the first week of school, there were multiple instances of “Zoom-bombing,” where uninvited people gained access to remote class meetings. Some of these intrusions included racially discriminatory language, leaving teachers scrambling to provide a more secure learning environment.

These initial “Zoom-bombings” in District 207 actually occurred on Google Meets. Google Meets initially lacked adequate security measures to protect class meetings from intruders. Mr. Andrew Eder, along with Ms. Kyleen Coia and Ms. Jennifer Korbar, is one of the new Assistant Principals of Student Supports, who worked to control the situation. 

“There were some situations where very inappropriate, hateful, racial discriminatory language was used in those classes,” Mr. Eder said. “We believe most of those situations were not Maine South students.”

Virtual class intrusions were a problem for many districts at the onset of remote learning. 

“This is not a situation that is unique to Maine South,” Ms. Coia said. “A lot of them [“Zoom-bombers”] do this with the intention of being one, disruptive, but also incredibly offensive. We were kind of in a whirlwind trying to protect every student in the building.”

Ms. Jennifer Sarashinsky, who, along with Ms. Anne Jacobson, is one of the sponsors of SOAR (Students Organized Against Racism), recognizes the need for student leadership in inclusivity.

“SOAR is a student-led group, and its purpose is to learn how to have courageous conversations about race and to work towards a school community which is accepting to all,” Ms. Sarashinsky said.

Ms. Sarashinsky was disappointed by the blatant use of hate speech on the video calls, especially during a time when students should have been in a positive learning environment.

“The use of hate speech, the n-word and other racist language is never acceptable,” Ms. Sarashinsky said. “The fact that someone felt it was okay to engage in these acts during a school day in a classroom is a sad statement.”

Students, including junior SOAR member Claire Shaffer, are also disappointed in the racial profanity used on the calls; however, Shaffer acknowledges this is more than just an on-screen issue.

“The conflicts on the Zoom calls were very disheartening to hear about, but I wasn’t surprised,” Shaffer said. “In person, racist and homophobic slurs are thrown around in the everyday language of many, so it wasn’t too surprising to hear they were being used in Zoom calls too.”

Junior Madeleine Riggs, another member of SOAR, recognizes the emotional impact these interactions had on those targeted.

“I think that the conflicts that took place on Zoom were terrible and hurtful to those affected,” Riggs said.

While Google was working on an update to its security settings, a more immediate change to remote learning for D207 virtual classes was implemented. 

“We made the decision at Maine South to switch to Zoom,” Ms. Korbar said. “Zoom has a security feature that only allows emails within the organization to join. Since we made that switch, we haven’t had any more incidents on Zoom.”

Although the technology aspect of this issue was fixed, there was still a need to address the larger issue of the emotional impact on students whom the hurtful language was targeted towards. 

“We [the three Assistant Principals of Student Supports] personally jumped into some virtual classrooms to talk about what happened,” Mr. Eder said. “We were aware that the language used made people offended and hurt. Obviously, in a classroom you need to feel safe. The three of us wanted to help restore a positive, safe learning environment.” 

However, damage control can only help to an extent. Junior Merisa Kraja, a SOAR member, emphasizes the importance in remaining proactive and educated on discrimination.

“Switching to Zoom isn’t going to stop the racist behavior,” Kraja said. “We must go beyond that to include more diversity in our English classes and dive into the darker parts of history in our social science classes.”

This year, Kraja created a club called Windows and Mirrors. The club aims to diversify the authors and topics of literature used in the Maine South English department’s curriculum. 

“This [Windows and Mirrors] includes, but is not limited to, advocating for novels from many cultures or books written by persons of color to be added to the library, the summer reading list, or the English classes,” Kraja said. 

By gaining exposure to experiences from authors of a different background, students are more apt to see an alternate viewpoint and recognize how their words and actions impact others.

“It’s important for students to draw knowledge from all perspectives, and Windows and Mirrors recognizes that a good amount of the books here at Maine South fail to accomplish that, as they are predominantly written by white authors,” Kraja said.

Junior SOAR member, Aiden Lefler, sees the positive affects of early exposure to the topic of discrimination. Addressing this before it evolves into a larger issue can prevent instances such as Zoom-bombings and promote inclusivity.

“To prevent others from using racial slurs, we need to be educating students from a young age about how hurtful these are to people and how they have real negative impacts,” Lefler said. 

Along with education, Ms. Sarashinsky stresses the significance in openly discussing racial prejudice and gaining exposure to the problem.

“Having courageous conversations about race and educating the community about the impact of hate speech ensure that when someone engages in acts of hate speech that others express how it’s wrong,” Ms. Sarashinsky said.

Rather than traditional repercussions, senior SOAR member, Elliot Bliss, sees how implementing educational awareness will be the best catalyst for change in the long run.

“Personally, I believe the best strategy for change is education and rehabilitation,” Bliss says. “I think that using standard disciplinary measures is not likely to change anything.”

Educational reformation may take time, yet optimism to cultivate change remains.

“I think things will change but it will be a long process,” Shaffer said. “This whole situation has made me feel more motivated to change things for the better at Maine South.”

With more widespread education, there is greater potential to breed an informed population, one where inclusivity is a priority.

“I don’t think our student body is a bad group of people by any means, but just like everyone else, there are ways we need to grow,” Lefler said.

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