Photo: Dries Augustyns

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Reports from Nova Scotia teachers and parents about strangers crashing online classrooms using vulgar, racist, violent and threatening language has one Fall River parent urging parents to keep close tabs on their children’s online learning spaces.

Stacey Rudderham is one of the administrators of the group Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education. Their Facebook page is followed by more than 17,000 people.

In a lengthy post on Thursday night, she told parents it was “urgent” they read her message and speak to their children. She said since at-home learning started, some teachers have been dealing with “classroom crashers” bursting into the online platform being used by the public schools in the province.

In her group post Rudderham wrote:

Teachers are being threatened with murder, rape, called “fat C$%#” and much more, in front of their entire class of students. One teacher was told by an intruder they knew where she lives and they will be having sex with her soon, and then he started moaning into the mic.

Another teacher was told he was an A$$hole among other things. Other students are being called the C word as well. We have heard that teachers are breaking down. All of this is happening during class time, so all of the students in those classes are exposed to it. Can you imagine hearing someone labeled as the school admin talk about having sex with your teacher???

Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education’s Stacey Rudderham. Photo: Contributed

“This is not a safe space…I did write some of the stuff in my post because I needed people to understand how incredibly dire this is,” Rudderham said in an interview Friday.

“It’s not the right time to have to deal with these kinds of extra stresses. I’ve been told that teachers are sitting there bawling.”

Rudderham said she was first made aware of these so-called intruders late last week. While most of the incidents reported to her are occurring in junior high school classrooms, she’s also heard it has happened in some high school classes.

Most of what was initially shared revolved around junior high school-aged youth busting in to classrooms making “stupid jokes” and being disruptive by doing things like screaming and cursing.

She said her own children in Grades 6 and 8 have had visits from online classroom intruders named Phantom and Jade. But beyond no one knowing who they are, how they got in or why they’re there, they’ve not caused any disturbances.

‘Weird, unexplained presences’

However, on Thursday afternoon she said parents and teachers “had finally had enough” and began reaching out to share incidents that were far more disturbing.

“They were talking about adults and strangers. And it wasn’t just, you know, little punk kids being brats or whatever it was,” she said.

“It was weird, unexplained presences…Like some guy who’s smoking a vape and drinking a beer with a Confederate flag behind him yelling about Black Lives Matter and playing racist songs in the background. How did he get into that classroom?”

Rudderham said while some students may be sharing their classroom codes with friends or on social media, that doesn’t account for some of the issues. Some teachers have told her that despite doing everything to keep their classrooms secure, it doesn’t always work.

She points to one case where a teacher was repeatedly booted out of her own classroom by an intruder.

Another teacher reached out to share that anyone with a code can join the classroom, see the children’s names, check out their work, photos, and their shared comments. They can also join any upcoming class meetings and access everything happening in that online classroom.

“As some people said last night, these are silent observers and we don’t know who they are, we can’t see them, so how do we know they’re not just scooping up videos and pictures of our kids,” she asked. “That’s disturbing.”

Rudderham said while there are many teachers reporting no problems at all, she’s heard from parents and teachers from across the province.

“It’s pretty much happening wherever, and so there’s a real security flaw in it and nobody seems to want to talk about it,” she said.

Rudderham said it’s also important that appropriate measures are taken against identifiable students who’ve popped into classrooms and threatened things like murder and rape.

“I don’t care if they’re kids and I don’t care if they weren’t serious about it, that is not something that they should be doing and getting away with, especially in a classroom with children,” she said.

“And to be clear too there are still invaders today. I’ve heard from several teachers. One guy was kicked out three times and they kicked three people out of another school.”

Rudderham said the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development and the Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) “are not engaging in a meaningful way that we can see to resolve this.”

With online learning set to continue until at least the end of May, her advice is for parents to talk to their children about online safety and appropriate behaviour. Explain why they should never share their classroom codes and not enter an online classroom under a pseudonym or for any purpose other than to learn.

“I would even go so far as telling my children to leave the classroom if somebody is in there and causing problems and to then connect with the teacher,” she said.

“This is not a safe space. Not if the teachers are getting abused like that, if the kids are being exposed to that kind of abuse and obscenities and God only knows what else.”

‘People are crossing lines’

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) hasn’t heard directly from its members on the issue of intruders in online classrooms. But the union has heard from teachers struggling with disrespectful and disturbing behaviour from their own students in their online learning environments.

Nova Scotia Teachers Union president Paul Wozney. Photo: Contributed

“We had an anonymous phone call from a vice principal…I’ll only say the school’s in metro out of respect for their privacy. Some of the treatment of staff that you’re describing is something that they were dealing with,” NSTU president Paul Wozney said in an interview.

“I don’t have any members contacting me about people external to the school system invading meetings, so until I have confirmed reports of that I’m not really in a position to comment on that too much.”

Wozney said while they’re unaware of any mass system security vulnerability that’s being exploited in their online classrooms, he’s encouraging NSTU members to contact the union if they are concerned about intruders or anything else making them feel unsafe. He said teachers’ right to a safe workplace applies whether they’re physically working in buildings or virtual spaces, and employers have a duty to create and support those safe spaces.

“We have lots of teachers who have their family locked down at home with them, they have their own kids, so it’s unnerving in a different way when teachers experience this kind of treatment online,” Wozney said.

“Not that you’re not vulnerable at school. But it’s not your home that’s being invaded, people aren’t seeing you in your personal space.”

Wozney said if there are issues, it’s important to note the tools being used by teachers across all regional centres and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP-the province’s Acadian school board) is provided by the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

“You can’t say well it’s on the regional centre or CSAP to keep people safe virtually when the platform that’s being used is being provided centrally,” he said.

“I think we pay a significant amount of money on an annual basis as a province for the use of Google Apps for education as an online learning platform and support…If it turns out that we’ve got a system vulnerability in terms of security, then Google should be moving immediately to improve the product.”

While it’s a teacher’s responsibility to create a safe virtual learning environment, Wozney said it’s important to remember that duty is shared by students. He said how students behave in an online space has a direct impact on the safety of other students and can positively or negative impact their learning as well as expose them to trauma and harm.

He believes many young people remain unaware of the importance of their role in helping keep online learning places safe. He urges every family with children in school across the province to have a conversation about digital citizenship and ensuring online behaviour reflects what’s expected in person.

“We also have (a) cyberbullying law in Nova Scotia…This kind of behaviour is illegal and there are legal channels to address it when it can be identified,” Wozney said.

“It’s not simply a matter of teachers’ rights being violated. People are crossing lines that are outside the law, and I don’t think anybody should expect anyone subjected to illegal behaviour to not report it to the authorities or for people to not be held accountable under the law that now exists.”

Before the move to remote learning, Wozney said there were concerns in schools about “a troubling rise” in the amount of aggression being witnessed among students. He said children and youth are really struggling in this pandemic, and this conversation serves a reminder for families to continue to connect with their children and create safe places where they can express their feelings.

“Teachers understand a lot of times problematic behaviour is a symptom of something much deeper going on. It doesn’t mean that it’s OK or a student doesn’t need to be reasonably accountable for their behaviour,” Wozney said.

“The vast majority of this behaviour because they’re hurting right and they don’t know how to deal with it…Kids need help and they need support. It’s been a really long year and a half for them, and I think we can’t miss that.”

‘Upsetting, but it is a solvable problem’

In an emailed statement on Friday evening, Department of Education and Early Childhood Development spokesperson Violet MacLeod said they’ve heard “overwhelmingly positive” feedback from teachers, parents, and students about at-home learning this year.

MacLeod said families and teachers are sharing positive examples and stories about their at-home learning experiences via social media and through their regional centres for education and the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial (CSAP-Acadian school board).

She said they’re regularly in touch with the regional centres for education and the CSAP and are aware there have been some instances where an unknown guest has joined an online class.

“This is upsetting, but it is a solvable problem,” she said.

Through the online platforms, teachers have control over who is admitted to the classroom and who can remain connected. To support teachers and school administration, staff in the Department are working directly with the Regions and CSAP to share key points and information about the online teacher controls and requiring them to report any incidents that may occur. If a teacher or staff person is having any difficulties with their online tools they are encouraged to reach out to their administration for support.

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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  1. Good that the Parents for Public Ed. group has brought this to the fore; it was foreseeable that the mentioned transgressions would occur. If this was foreseeable, then the ‘fixes’ should be at hand.