The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Zoom-bombers’ hijacked school board meeting from Black superintendent, played looped recording of racist slur

(Tiffany Hagler-Geard/Bloomberg News)
4 min

The Black superintendent of a Washington state school district was speaking to a mix of in-person and online board meeting attendees last month when he was suddenly interrupted. Someone with an image of George Floyd in their frame unmuted their microphone and played a looped recording of racial slurs — an act known as “Zoom-bombing.”

The person running the Zoom meeting quickly kicked the person out, the school district said, only for an elderly White man to then take over the screen and play the same racist track.

Police in Enumclaw, Wash., a town about 40 miles southeast of Seattle, announced on Wednesday they are investigating the Nov. 22 acts as hate crimes.

“This is a deeply disturbing, disruptive, and intolerable act the Enumclaw Police Department is taking extremely seriously and will work hard to identify the people responsible,” Cmdr. Mike Graddon said in a statement.

The Enumclaw School Board also released a statement condemning what it called “acts of hate,” noting the incidents “will not be tolerated.”

“Let it be clear, hate has no home here,” the statement said.

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The racist disruption in Washington is the latest discriminatory incident targeting educators and school board members. Over the past year, tensions at public school board meetings have sometimes turned violent over hot-button issues like mask mandates and critical race theory, an intellectual movement that examines the way policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism. Threats have become so prolific that Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the FBI in October to address the “disturbing spike.”

Last month, a man interrupted the president of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP during a virtual school district committee meeting by yelling a racial epithet, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. The hacker then displayed pornographic images. Also last month, attendees at a school board meeting in Pennsylvania’s Central Bucks School District disrupted the meeting with antisemitic and racist outbursts, according to the Morning Call.

“Zoom-bombing” became an issue at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, as government, school and company meetings went virtual. The FBI issued warnings about the threat of hijacked teleconferencing. Several instances of the hacking have been overtly racist. In March of 2020, online classes at the University of Southern California were disrupted by people using “racist and vile language,” the university said. That October, racist trolls shouted slurs as Rep. Jahana Hayes (D), Connecticut’s first Black congresswoman, spoke at a virtual town hall meeting.

The Nov. 22 incident in Enumclaw shook the community of about 12,000 residents. Shaun Carey, the superintendent, said in a letter to families that the racist actions of the two unknown individuals “left most of those in attendance shocked and appalled.”

He added that he, too, was still reeling from the events.

“Sadly, I had an experience this week that although wasn’t completely foreign to me in my many years of life, left me unsettled and disheartened,” Carey wrote in his Nov. 24 letter. “The words and images used were aimed at degrading people of color. Regardless of whether or not the two individuals who carried out this hateful act were random ‘Zoom-bombers’ or members of our community, the actions are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

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Enumclaw School District is cooperating with the investigation, Jessica McCartney, the district’s public information officer, said in a statement to The Washington Post. The meeting was not recorded, but an in-person attendee caught the events on video and later posted it on a local Facebook group, according to McCartney.

The disruptions were carried out by two separate Zoom accounts using different IP addresses, according to the school board.

“As more than one individual was involved, the chance that this was a random act of hate is lessened,” the statement said.

Going forward, the district will disable interactive options for virtual meeting attendees, the school board said. Zoom attendees were not previously limited in their ability to interact in the public meetings. This was an effort to allow “the same level of participation in both virtual and in-person,” McCartney said. Last month’s meeting was the first time they experienced a disruption.

District officials are working to ensure that “every person feels safe, respected and valued,” Carey, the superintendent, said.

“This isn’t always easy to do, but it is always the right thing to do,” he added.