Catawba County Schools Superintendent Matt Stover sent a letter to parents saying the system blocked websites after it was revealed two students were contacted by strangers who attempted to exploit them.
According to a statement from the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office, two students were contacted by strangers on their Chromebooks via a chat room associated with internet-based gaming sites. The strangers then invited the students to a Zoom meeting where they attempted to exploit them by soliciting inappropriate images and videos.
The sheriff’s office and the school system are investigating the incidents.
In response, the school system permanently blocked all Google sites outside of its domain and blocked Zoom with a few exceptions for students who take classes at Lenoir-Rhyne University, Catawba Valley Community College, and other courses that use Zoom as their virtual meeting platform, according to the letter.
Stephanie Wilson, who does marketing and communication for Catawba County Schools, said the reason the sites weren’t blocked before was because many teachers within the system and educators in other districts use Google Sites to build educational websites for students.
“Sites.google.com was not blocked because it would block a lot of educational resources that our teachers use and limit access to valuable teaching tools,” Wilson said. “But as soon as we found out about this, we blocked all Google sites outside our domain. While this may be at the expense of education, it was critically important to keep our students safe.”
Wilson said the school district does monitor the sites students visit. “In fact, it was our monitoring capabilities that led to the investigations,” she said. “Our teachers caught it!”
Wilson said the school district uses a content filtering service from Lightspeed Relay that specializes in K-12 internet safety. “These content filters are on all of our devices and prevent students from accessing inappropriate content and keep inappropriate content and individuals from contacting our students.”
“Bad actors are continually looking for ways to circumvent our protections, and unfortunately, in this case, they succeeded,” the letter from Stover said.
Wilson said that what the nefarious characters have done is build gaming sites on a Google site looking to circumvent content filters.
“In the coming weeks, we will be sending out information about what we’re doing to protect our students, including rolling out a new tool for parents and guardians to use to help monitor students’ activity while on their school-issued Chromebook,” the letter stated.