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Zoom fails: Virtual classrooms expose teachers' racist, offensive rants

Given the reliance on video technology during the pandemic," it’s exposing what has been there," said Raechele Pope, with the University of Buffalo.
Lauryn Morley, a lower school substitute teacher for the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, Md., works from her home due to the coronavirus outbreak, on April 1, 2020 in Arlington, Va.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images file

Zoom's video chat service became a virtual classroom almost overnight as schools across the country transitioned online in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

But over the past year, there have been multiple cases of teachers and educators being caught on video making offensive, and many times racist, comments.

These moments — captured when teachers believe they are off-camera or muted — gives us a window into their thoughts on race and other sensitive topics. In each instance, there has been swift public backlash.

Some educators have been forced to apologize, while others have either resigned or been fired.

While shocking, these incidents are not new. Cellphones for years have captured instances of teachers making offensive and racist remarks behind closed classroom doors. But given the reliance on video technology during the pandemic, "it’s exposing what has been there," said Raechele Pope, Chief Diversity Officer for the University of Buffalo's Graduate School of Education.

"The pandemic, I don’t believe, is bringing this out," Pope said. "The pandemic is bringing a lot of other things but we started to see it beforehand because cellphones have been so ubiquitous and so someone pulls up a cellphone and captures a conversation people wouldn’t believe was happening before no matter how many times we told them it was happening."

Earlier this month, a Black mother filed a legal claim against a California school district after her son's sixth-grade teacher allegedly made racist comments during a Zoom call.

Katura Stokes said in her claim that she had set up the call in January with her son's teacher, Kimberly Newman, because the child was having difficulty accessing the online platform for Desert Willow Intermediate school in Palmade.

The teacher believed she had ended the Zoom call when she began making racist comments, according to Stokes' claim, a precursor to a lawsuit.

In excerpts of the recorded call, Newman says that the child was taught to lie and make excuses.

"This is what Black people do. This is what Black people do. White people do it, too, but Black people do it way more," she apparently says.

A spokesperson for the Palmdale School District said that Newman resigned, while also condemning any kind of racial bias. Newman didn't respond to NBC News' request for comment.

Also in California, an entire school board resigned after leaders were caught making disparaging comments about parents during a Zoom meeting that the board believed was private.

At one point on the recorded call, Oakley Union Elementary School District President Lisa Brizendine said that parents want "to pick on us because they want their babysitters back."

"B----, if you're going to call me out, I'm going to f--- you up," trustee Kim Beede said. "Sorry, that's just me!" she said as other board members chuckled.

Several of the board members, including Brizendine and Beede, apologized before resigning from their positions.

And in Washington D.C., one Georgetown University Law Center professor was fired and another resigned after they were caught on video discussing the performance of Black students.

In the video, professor Sandra Sellers can be heard saying, “I end up having this angst every semester that a lot of my lower ones are Blacks, happens almost every semester." Professor David Batson did not disagree or interject.

Zoom did not respond to multiple emails for comment on this story.

Pope, an expert on multicultural education, said these incidents not only affect the district but the student and their family.

"I think it sends a message about their implicit biases," she said, referring to teachers caught in hot mic situations. "Because the person is different than they are, a different cultural group than they are, they see someone do something once and now they make that assumption about everyone who belongs to that cultural group."

"I think that has a wide range of effects on those families, and that person’s ability to teach," Pope added.

She believes these incidents keep happening, in part, due to a lack of diversity.

"The teachers or the faculty haven’t necessarily been trained or received their education in an area that was very diverse. And often their training doesn’t cover these issues in any way that really helps one develop competence in dealing with people that are different than they are," according to Pope.

To begin to tackle the issue, Pope suggested that school districts make internal changes, including in their hiring.

"As you're doing interviewing and hiring, you’re talking to people and you’re being very clear about what you expect and what you want and you are asking questions that get to issues of bias and issues of acceptance," she said.

Pope said she also thinks ongoing training could be crucial.

"I think training is important. I know a lot of people are saying, ‘Let’s not do training. It doesn’t do anything.’ Well, it doesn’t do anything because there’s nothing sustained," she explained. "If I went out and ran one mile and said, ‘There’s my exercise for the year,’ it’s not going to do anything to improve my health. So neither is a single training or even training once a year. What would help is a more systematic approach."

Kristina Servidio, the owner of Servidio Education Solutions tutoring company, said there needs to be some type of reform and suggested that schools should install cameras in classrooms and in administrative offices — an idea that has been widely debated.

"We’ve been talking forever about should we or should we not have cameras in the classroom. I’ve always been a big proponent of yes, of course, you should because what do you have to hide," she said.

"In my dream world, you have the audio on and video on every day in your classroom and people pop in randomly, not from your school, drops into the classroom," she added.

Servidio, a former teacher, also thinks parents should have a say in the hiring process.

"These are our kids, I want to know what I’m getting from you. I want to know what you bring to the table," she said.