Vulgar ‘Zoom-bombing’ interrupts Salamanca school board online meeting

SALAMANCA — Unwelcomed vulgarity interrupted the video-conference meeting of the Salamanca City Central School District Board of Education on March 24, leading to a temporary shutdown of the meeting’s telecommunication app.

A few minutes before the live broadcast of the board meeting held in the high school library began, unknown guests on the Zoom video-conferencing platform interrupted the meeting by filling the screen with inappropriate pictures and language.

“It was our first attempt at a Zoom digital board meeting to practice proper social distancing techniques,” explained Superintendent Robert Breidenstein. “We sent out links to the community and inviting them to participate.”

As people were joining the meeting before it began, one individual joined who was clearly not a local resident, Breidenstein said.

“They disrupted the meeting with some vulgarity, inappropriate graphics and some inappropriate links that they just bombed onto the screen,” he said. “We disconnected the meeting immediately and then restarted the meeting.”

Breidenstein said the district learned this attack is called “Zoom-bombing” and has been a common new reality for districts across the country as they transition to online meetings during the COVID-19 shutdowns and social distancing.

“It was an unknown term to us prior to (Tuesday) evening at 5:31,” he said. “We reaffirmed our social media settings and held the meeting without disruption or interruptions.”

When district officials did a diagnostic of the system after the meeting, they found a setting to safely allow appropriate people into the meeting had not been checked, Breidenstein explained. He said the district should have had each person sign in with a password and then be held in a waiting room where they would have been approved to join individually and limit posting from anyone not running the meeting.

“We’ve been using Zoom right regularly, even before the virus besieged the community, the country and the world and we had not had any issues with that,” he said. “However, this was our first attempt at a public global meeting to comply with open meeting laws. It was the simple matter of a singular box not being clicked to provide those additional securities.”

Breidenstein said it was fortunate that the incident occurred before the meeting proper began because the comments and images were not conducive to normal meeting operations. But he said it’s one of the drawbacks of technology and open access.

“We did share our experience with other superintendents throughout the region and reaffirmed to them what to make sure they should have done in terms of their security,” he said. “It was a rather unfortunate experience for about five seconds, and then we had the normal board meeting without interruption.”

DURING THE actual meeting, board members approved a resolution addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of all school buildings, moving to remote home-based instruction.

Per the resolution, the board authorized Breidenstein to take necessary measures, including waiving current district policies, and exercising the authority granted by General Municipal Law 92 to ensure the continuity of business office functions; to designate select staff, faculty and administration as essential; and to establish parameters, review criteria, grant approvals and/or otherwise approve requests for all employees including himself to work from home.

“This shall be effective from March 17, 2020, until official adoption and shall remain in effect until such time as the district is allowed to reopen to students and non-essential personnel and resume functions as prescribed by the aforementioned regulatory authorities,” the resolution read.

Also in the resolution, the board approved the continued payment of all staff within the district, less any applicable state and/or federal benefits which may be available, at their base salary, inclusive of any additional extracurricular, athletic or other stipends.

The board also approved two items regarding the purchases of 70 Fern Ave. and a Portion of 413 Front Ave. adjacent to the district property as part of the ongoing capital project.

“At some point in the future, the Fern (Avenue) property may be integrated into the High School campus and redeveloped, and the Front (Avenue) property may be integrated into Veterans Memorial Park and partially developed as part of the improvements to be undertaken at the Park as part of the previously approved capital project,” the resolution read.

The portion of 413 Front Ave. was purchased for $50,000 and 70 Fern Ave. was purchased for $79,999.

(Contact managing editor Kellen Quigley at kquigleysp@gmail.com)