18 August 2020

Lesson to be learned over school email safety breach

| Michael Weaver
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School Chromebook

Students as young as 10 received the images. Photo: File.

The safety of online resources in ACT public schools is being questioned after explicit material was sent to thousands of students last Friday (14 August), resulting in students being bullied online and others receiving unsolicited text messages, calls or emails.

The incident occurred when one student accidentally sent an email to a distribution list for the entire Year 8 public school cohort when trying to share work with his class.

Education Minister Yvette Berry confirmed that students were able to decipher what the distribution list emails were and used them to send emails to other cohorts.

“A small number of students shared inappropriate material, including pornographic images, using the email distribution lists,” Ms Berry said.

READ MORE Explicit material sent to students after Education Directorate email lists deciphered

The ACT Education Directorate issued a statement yesterday (18 August) saying that access to the Google Drive and Google Classroom systems had been restored for all ACT public school students after rigorous testing of the system over the weekend.

An external consultant is providing independent oversight to ensure the ongoing safety of the Google platform within ACT public schools.

However, most public school students are unable to access their email accounts while the removal of inappropriate content occurs and appropriate safety controls are put in place.

Students are expected to have their email accounts restored by the end of this week.

“The Education Directorate understands this incident has caused anxiety for some students and families and that it has disrupted students being able to study effectively during this time. We apologise for any inconvenience caused,” the statement said.

The ACT Education Directorate has also notified the Australian Federal Police and the eSafety Commissioner about this incident.

eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman-Grant said a suite of resources has been provided to help schools avoid online safety problems and to deal with them more effectively.

“What has happened in the ACT vividly demonstrates some of these risks and I feel for the students involved, their parents and teachers.

“The internet has vastly complicated the issue of school safety. Schools are online communities now as well as physical communities. And unlike physical safety, the online safety challenges for schools don’t end at the school gate or during school hours,” Ms Inman-Grant said.

A letter, authorised by Director-General of the ACT Education Directorate, Katy Haire, was also sent to all public school students on 17 August outlining the breach. The letter commended the students who deleted the emails and others who requested the explicit content stop being sent.

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“Over the weekend, we have worked to remove access to global distribution lists and rigorously test our systems to ensure students cannot again access the lists. An external consultant is providing independent oversight to ensure the ongoing safety of our Google platform,” the letter from Ms Haire reads.

“I understand that this incident has caused some anxiety for some students and families and that it has disrupted students being able to study effectively during this time. Schools will accommodate student needs where this incident has impacted on their scheduled assessments.

“I am also conscious that some of the material in the emails may have been distressing for your child. Schools will support students and their families as required. Please talk to your school who can assist with any needs you may have, including facilitating sessions with school psychologists where required.

“We also understand there have been some instances of bullying and harassment related to this incident. Please contact either your school or the Education Directorate so that we can support you and your family, and so that action can be taken.”

An investigation has confirmed that no external body has hacked or exported information following the breach; however, Shadow Minister for Education Elizabeth Lee said Canberra’s families have been let down by a serious and inexplicable breach.

“Children deserve to be kept safe at school and while using school-approved resources,” Ms Lee said.

“Families and teachers are rightly distressed by the explicit and disturbing material that was disseminated and the disruption this has and continues to cause to their education.

“Canberra families are right to demand an apology and answers.”

Replying on the ACT Public Schools’ Facebook page, one concerned parent said: “I do hope that those responsible get more than a talking to. These things once seen can’t be unseen and they were totally irresponsible.”

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