The Nov. 12 Vashon Island School District’s online board meeting, attended by school staff, board members and the public, was abruptly cut short after it was disrupted by an internet-based attack.
The attack, known as Zoom-bombing, was carried out by three people who logged into the open public meeting and interrupted the proceedings with a barrage of racist and other highly offensive remarks, most of them aimed directly at specific board members and McSheehy.
The incident occurred approximately 45 minutes into the meeting and lasted for only a few minutes until the meeting was stopped.
In an email to families sent on Nov. 13, Superintendent Slade McSheehy denounced the incident as a “shocking, offensive and hate-motivated act, intended to inflict emotional pain and trauma” and said that the behavior was “contrary to every value and expectation we hold as a caring, supportive and anti-racist community.”
He said that the district had contacted law-enforcement agencies and investigative reports had been filed with both the King County Sheriff Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Zoom-bombing — the malicious interruption of online meetings with hate speech as well as sometimes the display of pornographic materials through screen-sharing — has affected numerous other school districts and universities as well as other organizations that meet virtually. The attacks have been carried out by both foreign and domestic bad actors who find links to online meetings through a range of sources.
In an interview on Nov. 13 with The Beachcomber, McSheehy said his gut feeling was that the attack had not been carried out by islanders.
“I don’t have any evidence, but this didn’t feel local to me,” he said. “This is a group of trolls who seek out public meetings, and they just go in and disrupt.”
The attack seemed to have elements of sophistication that extended beyond a prank call, he said, explaining that the attackers had been able to unmute themselves after having been silenced by a meeting administrator. He also said it seemed to him that their voices had been digitally altered.
He said that the district would institute new procedures and settings to strengthen the district’s resistance to such attacks for both online classroom meets as well as other public meetings.
The attack was a jarring disruption of a meeting that had, up until that point, included presentations by new youth school board representatives and discussion of VISD’s racial equity initiatives.
Youth representatives Ella Yarkin and Mead Gill — both seniors at Vashon High School — both made presentations to the board, relaying concerns of students as well as news about sports and Associated Student Body activities.
Yarkin spoke about high participation in in-person sports activities including cross country, a sport in which she is active and accomplished. Team members will run in an annual dock-to-dock race, tentatively now scheduled to take place on Friday, Nov. 20.
Gill urged the district, based on his discussions with other students, to adopt a more consistent and understandable standards-based grading system to be used for distance learning. He also reported that ASB was organizing for students to paint a mural that promotes racial equity at the school. The mural will be painted on a concrete structure outside of the high school gym, facing the upper parking lot.
Additionally, Gill detailed a developing partnership between The Riptide, Vashon High School’s student newspaper, and The Beachcomber, which will result in the work of student journalists being published in The Beachcomber.
After the student presentations, McSheehy announced the hiring of islander Delany Steele to serve as a liaison to the families of Latino students in grades 6 to 12 — an hourly contract hire he said he had been eager to make for some time. He hopes to make the position full time in 2021, he said.
Earlier in the year, Comunidad Latina de Vashon, a local grassroots organization, had requested in writing to be a part of the hiring process for this position, both in terms of developing a job description and participating in interviews for the position. The group has also repeatedly advocated for the creation of this position.
But in a telephone call with The Beachcomber, McSheehy said that Comunidad members did not participate in the hiring process. He said it had been necessary to hold interviews during the day, and Comunidad members were not available at that time. Instead, district staff conducted the interviews with two candidates, and chose Steele after what McSheehy called “a thoughtful process.”
At the board meeting, McSheehy also said the district had contracted with Felis Peralta, the executive director of equity in Education with Puget Sound Educational Service District, to evaluate the district’s equity initiatives, work with the board and staff, and conduct a racial equity summit for the community.
Additionally, he detailed and praised efforts by Stephanie Spencer, VISD’s director of teaching and learning, to create a website that will document the district’s actions since adopting a racial equity plan in 2017.
McSheehy also presented results from a survey completed by 361 district parents that generally gave relatively good marks to the district for their implementation of distance learning. The survey responses also included a number of suggestions on ways the district could improve online education.
Of all respondents, just over 65% said the transition to distance learning had been either “easy” or “doable” for their children. Another 20% said it had been difficult.
Fifty-nine percent said that their students’ workload was “just right.” The next highest percentage of parents, 22.2%, said the workload was somewhat heavy.
Answers were broken out into categories of responses from elementary and secondary school families.
But results for both sets of parents, across the board, showed that internet access was a problem for approximately 10% of students, and that understanding teachers’ expectations was a problem for approximately 20% of students.
The most common program with distance learning for both elementary and secondary school students? Almost 75% of elementary school students’ parents, and approximately half of secondary school students’ parents, said “Staying focused on tasks at home.”
This fall, full-time enrollment for the district has decreased by 20.95 students — a drop that Matt Sullivan, Executive Director of Business and Operations for the district, said was favorable in comparison with other nearby districts.