ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — Rockford Public Schools said a screenshot of what looked like a teacher posting a racial slur on an online school system was “a hoax” manipulated by a high school student.
District officials said they are investigating to find out which student manipulated code on the Schoology website, used by both students and parents, then posted it to social media.
The post, containing a racial slur used against African Americans, has been circulating around Rockford Public Schools since March, school officials say.
“We had some students coming to us saying, ‘This is out there.’ And I applaud our students for doing that, letting us know, because they know that is highly inappropriate,” said Rockford High School Principal Tom Hosford.
“The picture was alarming because … it contained a phrase that was very offensive. This morning around 6:30, I sent this to Mr. Hosford and said we need to investigate,” said Steve Matthews, Superintendent of Rockford Public Schools.
The post appeared to come from Rockford High School’s Assistant Principal Eric Cavalli.
“Our employee did not do that. And we were able to confirm that via investigation work with our technology department,” said Hosford. “Quite frankly, he is an incredible human being and would never do something like that.”
The school asked its tech department to review all messages posted on the Schoology message board by administrators.
“None of them displayed the offending message,” Matthews wrote in an email to Rockford families.
Archived messages show the staff member did not post the racially insensitive message. In an email to Rockford families, Matthews called the screenshot “a hoax.”
So, Hosford began talking to students.
“They were able to help us learn what they are able to do with some of the social media sites and quite frankly it’s a little bit alarming,” said Matthews.
Hosford demonstrated how students were able to manipulate the message on a school website called Schoology, used by students, parents and staff.
“What these students were able to do was show us how computer code in the message system could be accessed and manipulated to create a false temporary message. The temporary message takes the place of the actual message that was posted,” Matthews explained in the email. “The temporary message remains active until the message system is refreshed. Upon refreshing the feed, the temporary message is erased and the system reverts back to the original message.”
The school believes a student manipulated the website display in this way and then took a screenshot and posted it to Snapchat.
“And now it’s just coming out on social media,” said Hosford. “Parents rightly were alarmed if this were true and so they sent it to us,” said Matthews.
He said the school is working with its tech department to try to close the loophole so students won’t be able to manipulate code in the future.
“In everyday dealings with our youth, there are lapses in judgment and yeah, it starts off as, ‘This might be funny,’ and it definitely is not funny,” said Hosford. “We hope to find who this person is and have them realize how inappropriate that was.”
Matthews and Hosford said they take these things seriously.
“If something like that had been posted, we would have acted appropriately with that employee, but we were pretty confident in this employee that that is not who he was,” said Matthews.
He advises people to notify the school when they see something online that doesn’t seem quite right.
“We want our community to know that we want to be a part of the community and want to support the community because when things like this happen it’s an attempt to try to tear us apart and drive wedges,” said Matthews.
Hosford advised students to think before posting.
“We’re just going to continue to stress with our student body, be inclusive, be supportive, do the positive thing, stop for one second before you hit send,” said Hosford.
The school said it is “working backwards” to find the student who originally created the misleading screenshot.
“We appreciate that this was brought to our attention. We investigated quickly and discovered the truth was far different from what was reported. We are addressing the issue. We continue to have great confidence in our administrative team,” wrote Matthews in an email to families.
Here is the full message sent to Rockford Public School parents:
To our Rockford families:
Today, some administrators and Board of Education members received an email that, if accurate, suggested that one of our administrative staff had posted a racist phrase on our high school Schoology message board.
Alarmed, Mr. Hosford and I immediately began an investigation.
It was, as we suspected, a hoax.
We asked our tech department to review all of the messages posted on our Schoology message board by administrators. None of them displayed the offending message.
We brought in students who we thought might have information that would be useful. What these students were able to do was show us how computer code in the message system could be accessed and manipulated to create a false temporary message. The temporary message takes the place of the actual message that was posted. The temporary message remains active until the message system is refreshed. Upon refreshing the feed, the temporary message is erased and the system reverts back to the original message.
What we discovered is that a student accessed this computer code and created this false temporary message. The student then took a screenshot. The student then refreshed the system. The message was erased and the original message was returned.
This actually happened back in March but the screen shot was not shared until this week.
So where are we now?
- We have positively identified that one of our administrators did not post a racist phrase on a school message board.
- We identified that a student at our high school manipulated code to create a temporary message that was offensive.
- This student took a screenshot and shared that screen shot with others.
- We are working to close this backdoor so no additional messages could be created.
- We are working backwards to find the student who started this process and inappropriately accessed our message system and created the offending message.
We appreciate that this was brought to our attention. We investigated quickly and discovered the truth was far different from what was reported. We are addressing the issue. We continue to have great confidence in our administrative team.Dr. Steve Matthews, Superintendent of Rockford Public Schools