‘Zoom bombers’ target Cal High’s video conference with Vietnam War veterans

Multiple perpetrators hijack a class meeting with veterans and students by screen sharing explicit content

With+online+classes+using+virtual+meetings+to+hold+lectures%2C+people+have+found+ways+to+hack+into+these+calls+to+disrupt+the+peace.

courtesy of Yifei Zhang from The Rice Thresher

With online classes using virtual meetings to hold lectures, people have found ways to hack into these calls to disrupt the peace.

By Isabelle Coburn, California High School - CA

Nearly 100 Cal High juniors had their Zoom meeting for U.S. history hijacked on Friday when they were continuously shown screen shared videos depicting racial abuse, suicide, executions, and pornographic material.

The meeting was designed to give students taking U.S. history an opportunity to interact and listen to stories from Vietnam war veterans.

But things didn’t go as planned.

During the 50 minute call with Vietnam veterans Mike Martin and Bill Green, multiple participants in the call kept interrupting the veterans’ presentation, unmuting themselves to play explicit music and sharing explicit images on their screens with all of the students – a practice now known as “Zoom bombing”.

“At first, it was harmless,” said junior Anna Guan, who was on the call. “The [perpetrators] shared their screen which had photos that were kind of related to the presentation. They weren’t graphic, so we didn’t think much of it. [The videos and images] gradually got more intense.”

A majority of the videos, images, and websites shared by the perpetrators were extremely violent and offensive.

“All of the [content] was triggering on different levels,” Guan said. “It was terrible for the veterans to witness, especially because they talked about suffering from PTSD, but it was also triggering for students who have dealt with self harm, suicidal thoughts, or domestic abuse.”

AP United States history teacher Scott Hodges, who was one of the co-hosts for the Zoom meeting, had to remove multiple people who were causing the disturbance in the call.

“It got really inappropriate, so we decided to end the call at that point,” Hodges said. “But sadly, the damage had already been done.”

Hodges and other U.S. history teachers were determined to have the students get a chance to interact with the veterans, so they decided to give the Zoom meeting a second try.

“We set up a new [Zoom] meeting with a password, and were able to monitor who joined the second time around,” Hodges said. “If it wasn’t someone that we knew, we didn’t let them in.”

Luckily, there were no more problems in the second call, but many students were upset with the whole ordeal.

“The students were all very mad because we felt misrepresented by what happened,” Guan said. “Most of us were furious that someone would disrespect the veterans like this.”

Unfortunately, these type of “Zoom bombings” have become extremely common after schools closed because of the coronavirus pandemic and instruction transitioned to online instruction.

Video conference platforms like Zoom have been beneficial by allowing teachers to have face time with and instruct students. But these meetings also have their drawbacks, as several students and teachers have learned.

An unknown man joined a Berkley High School class meeting on Zoom earlier this month and exposed himself to participants, according to The Mercury News. Cal Poly’s Chinese Association also was “Zoom bombed” in mid-May when about 20 people joined a call uninvited and began bombarding the meeting with racist slurs and symbols, according to The Tribune.

One Connecticut teenager was actually charged with computer crimes in April after officials linked the teen to a series of “Zoom bombings”. As a result, the Madison, Conn., school district targeted by the teen stopped using Zoom and switched to other platforms like Google Meet, according to the New York Post.

During the Cal High call, students in attendance were horrified at what they were witnessing and tried their best to interject.

“It got pretty heated when other students started turning on their microphones to tell the perpetrators to stop, which didn’t help very much,” junior Madeline Harris said. “The meeting’s chat was also disabled, so we couldn’t tell people off for being disrespectful.”

The lack of respect caused by the Zoom bombing is what seemed to upset most students.

“The veterans talked a lot about how their welcome home was so terrible because of how controversial the Vietnam War was.” Harris said. “When these soldiers came home, they were deemed as ‘baby killers’ and bad people, and they got spat on, even when it wasn’t necessarily their choice to get drafted.”

Martin and Green, the two Vietnam veterans who were presenting in the meeting, were talking to students on behalf of the VietNam Veterans of Diablo Valley, an organization that has been coming to Cal to speak with students for more than 20 years, Hodges said.

“[The veterans] reached out to us a number of years ago,” said U.S. History teacher Michelle Turner, whose students were part of the Zoom call. “For a long time [the veterans] didn’t talk about their experiences, so as they always say at the end of the presentation, this is therapy for them.”

Principal Megan Keefer emailed students, parents, and staff members later in the day to inform them about the incident.

“I am both frustrated and disappointed that this has happened.” Keefer wrote. “We will be reaching out to support affected students immediately.”

Keefer said the incident is currently under investigation by the San Ramon Police.

Moving forward, there are many steps of precaution that can be taken to prevent “Zoom bombings” and to ensure the safety of online classroom video calls. Passwords can be used to provide entry into a meeting, screen sharing for all participants can be turned off, and waiting rooms can be used to select which participants are allowed into a meeting.

“For students to Zoom bomb the presentation while veterans were sharing their stories about the lack of respect that they received as Vietnam war veterans is unthinkable,” Guan said. “The fact that students were doing what they did just struck a chord that shouldn’t even have been touched.”

Anyone with information about the incident should contact the San Ramon Police Department or Cal High administration.

This story was originally published on The Californian on May 24, 2020.