The student’s mother was stunned to realize the teacher could not see or stop the messages. She complained to school officials. But after the district investigated, it told her the Fairfax school system could neither monitor nor shut off the chat function, said the parent, who spoke privately to protect her son’s privacy.
“At this time, Fairfax County Public Schools is not able to restrict students’ access to Google Chat,” administrators wrote in a report obtained by The Washington Post. The harassed student “should ignore individual and group chat requests … in the future.”
The fifth-grader could also, an administrator suggested, “mute the chat notifications.”
The incident is only the latest snarl in Fairfax’s troubled rollout of online learning, which began in mid-April when the sprawling Northern Virginia system tried to launch a learning platform called Blackboard. That effort dissolved into chaos after students and teachers suffered technical troubles, privacy issues and harassment.
A second failed attempt a week later led to the resignation of the school system’s longtime information technology chief and to the announcement that Fairfax was moving away from Blackboard. Instead, officials switched at warp speed to Google’s online learning platform.
But the hastiness of that switch helped foster a situation in which students can harass each other with impunity, according to emails and documents obtained by The Post. Worries about unsupervised messaging are only adding to years-old concerns about administrative oversight of student behavior on G Suite for Education, which Fairfax — like thousands of schools nationwide — is using cost-free to host online classes as campuses remain closed to fight the coronavirus.
Even before the virus, Google had a near-monopoly on online education in the United States, experts said. Its suite of tools — which comes in free and paid versions — includes documents, spreadsheets, powerpoints, email, and virtual classroom and videoconferencing features. The pandemic has fueled an explosion of clients: More than 100 million students and teachers worldwide used the company’s educational tools as of April, according to a post on Google’s website, up from 50 million the month before.
Many educators praise Google for its attractive layout, effectiveness and ease of use. But increased dependence on the platform is also highlighting its pitfalls. Students can easily create documents, slide shows or drives and populate them with inappropriate language and images — and they can share the content with any of their classmates while remaining unobserved by adults. Some Fairfax students have already created documents filled with racist and homophobic language, according to images sent to The Post.
“Basically kids have zero issue getting content from the open Internet into fcpsschools.net and back out,” said Tim Schaad, a Fairfax parent and cybersecurity specialist who raised the alarm about G Suite to Fairfax’s top brass in late 2017. “Kids are running circles around administrators.”
School spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said Fairfax officials investigate whenever they receive reports of online misbehavior. She noted that administrators can review — and if need be, remove — all content students produce on G Suite.
Since schools closed, Caldwell said, the division has received four reports of misbehavior on G Suite. Only one of those took place on Google Chat, which Caldwell confirmed is largely outside of officials’ control. She said the division is working with Google to “disable chat and address this issue” as soon as possible.
“We encourage parents and students to report any incidents,” Caldwell said. “We will continue to investigate those issues as reported, [and] we continue to emphasize digital citizenship.”
'So they're acting out'
The spike in student misbehavior is not unique to Fairfax. As districts throughout the country experiment with online offerings, many have reported similar problems. The phenomenon even earned its own word: “Zoom-bombing,” a catchall term for the bombardment of virtual class with anonymous, hateful messages or images.
In Fairfax’s first attempt, students took advantage of unused security features and logged into Blackboard anonymously, interrupting class with a flurry of obscene, homophobic and racist messages. One person joined a German lesson with the username, “I LOVE ADOLF HITLER.”
But high-profile incidents like this, said education consultant David Franklin, may have masked a more insidious problem: Students are finding ways to bully one another out of sight on school platforms.
They hide the nastiness in chats, or other spaces not easily visible to adults, Franklin said. A common tactic on G Suite, Franklin said, involves confining horrible exchanges to the comments section of documents or slides, which not all teachers know to check.
Since schools closed, Franklin, who heads education consulting company the Principal’s Desk, has fielded inquiries from school districts across the nation struggling to combat online bullying, much of it waged through Google chats and documents.
“A lot of teachers and school systems don’t even think about this but it’s happening everywhere,” Franklin said. “Kids are isolated at home, bored, starved for attention, so they’re acting out.”
Part of the trouble stemmed from how quickly American schools had to shift to online learning, Franklin said. The turnaround, accomplished almost overnight, left little time to train teachers how to detect and combat bullying, or to select and install monitoring software.
In Fairfax, officials were unable to turn off Google Chat partly because of how rushed it was to switch to Google, according to emails obtained by The Post. Following the Blackboard fiasco, administrators activated Google Meet, a videoconferencing feature meant to replace the video instruction previously available through Blackboard.
“Because we turned on this functionality rather quickly, there is no way to disable chat and leave Meet enabled for students,” Fairfax Chief Operating Officer Marty Smith wrote in an email to the parent of the harassed fifth-grader. “We have confirmed with Google that they are working on changes to settings in the environment that would give us more granular control over chat.”
If the division turned off Google Chat right now, Caldwell said, the new settings would enable students to log into Google Meet and participate in video class anonymously.
“This carries different but equally challenging problems like ‘Zoom-bombing,’ ” Caldwell said, “and lack of auditability [and] accountability.”
A Google spokeswoman said that, starting June 15, a new setup will take effect that allows educators to turn Google Chat and Google Meet on and off separately.
Smith wrote in his email that Fairfax’s “internal Google team” knew beforehand that activating Meet would allow unmonitored exchanges between students. In the weeks before the switch, at least one Fairfax principal messaged teachers to warn them away from Google Meet — specifically because of the chat feature.
“One of the big reasons” not to use Google Meet, the principal wrote in the email, obtained by The Post, “is because there isn’t a feature to turn the chat function off.”
Fairfax chose to proceed anyway, according to Smith, because it was imperative to find a replacement for the Blackboard version of video learning.
“No collaborative technology tool will provide zero interaction among students,” Smith wrote in the email to the parent. “We will be working with … principals and teachers to discuss ways to reinforce digital citizenship.”
“Zoom-bombing” may be a phenomenon of the pandemic. But Schaad, the Fairfax parent and cybersecurity specialist, first noticed the G Suite issues in November 2017. As a “cyber guy,” he was determined to keep tabs on his kids’ online profiles — and was flabbergasted when he discovered that neither he, nor any other adult, could easily monitor what they were doing online. Unlike some other online learning platforms, G Suite does not offer parent accounts or access.
In late 2017, an escalating series of exchanges with Fairfax tech personnel led to an in-person meeting with Maribeth Luftglass, the since-ousted IT chief, and roughly a dozen other higher-ups, according to emails obtained by The Post.
During the meeting, Schaad said, he repeatedly asked how Fairfax planned to discover and curb online misbehavior. He noted that his own daughters had shown him inappropriate documents and warned school officials of others that are “common knowledge” among students, according to his children.
In reply, Schaad said, Fairfax staffers pointed to the system’s “digital citizenship training” for students and predicted children would not do anything too awful. They also agreed to forward his daughters’ school emails to Schaad. “Enough to make me go away,” he said.
Luftglass could not be reached for comment. Asked about the division’s response to Schaad’s complaint, Caldwell said parents “are encouraged to log in [to G Suite] with their child and review any content, as well as report any inappropriate content to the school.”
She said Fairfax has received a “small number of parent questions and concerns” about G Suite over the years and has responded to each one. A Google spokeswoman did not directly answer a question about the prevalence of student harassment on its platforms.
“We know from conversations with other districts,” Caldwell said, “that these questions are not unique to FCPS.”
Over the years, Schaad reached out to local officials, to state lawmakers, to news outlets, trying to keep attention on the issue. But no one acted. “It was crickets,” he said.
Though the pandemic has gotten schools’ attention, he remains convinced Fairfax is ignoring the risks and best practices of technology implementation he follows every day in his profession. It is an “ironclad rule of IT,” he said. “When you give people tech, they will do whatever they can with it.”
“And when those users are high school boys?” he said. “You can only imagine.”
Another job for Mom
Every morning, the mother of the harassed fifth-grader watches her son settle in at her iMac and sign into online school. He clicks straight to Google Chat.
She cannot monitor his every minute online: A single parent, she is working from home full time and must care for her second child, too. She has asked her son to stop looking at the messages, but that is where fifth-grade social interaction takes place these days. Instead, he has started logging in early. He uses the extra time before class to examine every chat group, scanning for mean things other students may have typed about him overnight.
With her support and guidance, the fifth-grader is fighting the mistreatment. He recently blocked one of the bullies, and he is trying to reason with his harassers.
“what did i do,” he asked in a recent message, “to make you guys so mad at me.”