By Matt DiSanto and Geoff Rushton
Penn State University Police and Public Safety is investigating after a “Zoom bombing” incident on Monday night in which an unidentified individual joined a virtual diversity event at University Park and directed hate speech and “horrific” gestures at guests.
A similar incident occurred during an online diversity event at Penn State Brandywine on Monday night, according to the university.
Both attacks come a little more than two weeks after dozens of unauthorized users joined a Penn State Black Caucus event on Zoom and directed racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic hate speech and gestures at participants.
“These vile activities are reprehensible and the disruption and trauma they create is inexcusable,” Penn State President Eric Barron said in a statement on Tuesday. “We must continue to stand strong together against these appalling incidents and show that our community will not tolerate the hate-filled words and actions of those who hide behind the anonymity of a computer screen. These are criminal activities and, if found, we will hold the perpetrators responsible.”
At approximately 6:15 p.m. on Monday, an unauthorized individual reportedly joined a Zoom call and began disrupting “Pioneers of Prevention: Black Women Activists Against Sexual Violence,” a virtual conversation sponsored by Penn State’s Gender Equity Center at University Park that aimed to discuss Black women activists who led movements against sexual violence and rape in America. The event was one of many featured in Penn State’s Black History Month lineup.
According to GroupMe messages obtained by Onward State, witnesses at the event said the Zoom-bomber “reenacted” the police killing of George Floyd by dressing as an officer and pinning down a mannequin. The individual also shouted threats about “raping Black women” while event guests discussed disproportionate threats of sexual assault against Black and white women.
The incident at Penn State Brandywine also involved an individual dressed as a police officer while displaying what appeared to be a firearm, according to a university statement. Evidence indicates both incidents were “racially motivated,” the statement said.
Shayna Berman, Phi Sigma Sigma sorority’s diversity chair, said the “Zoom-bomber” during the University Park event also showed “horrific” videos of assaults on Black men and women. The individual was removed by the meeting’s host immediately after.
“This event was supposed to be a safe environment to educate women in Greek Life as part of the celebration of Black History Month,” Berman said.
In a joint statement, Mayor Ron Filippelli and Borough Council President Jesse Barlow said State College is a welcoming place that celebrates diversity. They said they “are disgusted by the continued racist attacks on our community.”
“State College is a progressive and caring community that strives to ensure everyone has a voice,” Filippelli and Barlow said. “These continued actions by hateful individuals are unacceptable and go against the vision we are working towards as a community. We want to offer our deepest sympathies to those that have been impacted by these horrendous events.
They encouraged those who are able to support Penn State’s Black Caucus through the organization’s website.
Penn State Police’s Criminal Investigations Unit is investigating “and pursuing all resources to identify the suspect, along with Penn State’s Office of Information Security.”
Investigations involving computer crimes can be “complex and lengthy” because of the court orders and search warrants required to obtain evidence and because perpetrators take steps to conceal their identities and locations, according to the university statement
One attendee of Monday night’s University Park event said the Zoom-bomber appeared to have used a spoofed IP address.
Anyone with information about the incidents should contact police at (814) 863-1111 or submit a tip online.
Similar recent Zoom attacks have targeted “underrepresented communities or communities discussing diversity topics” at universities across the nation, according to Penn State’s statement.
Rutgers University reported last week that a series of “racist and bigoted Zoom bombings” have targeted non-academic student events there, most recently directed at Black History Month programs.
Rutgers Chancellor Christopher Molloy said in a statement that “it appears that these attacks are not localized, and likely part of a larger coordinated international activity.”
After the Black Caucus Zoom bombing in January, Penn State police said individuals found responsible could face charges of ethnic intimidation, harassment, disorderly conduct and unlawful use of a computer.
Zoom bombings, in which unauthorized users gain access to online video meetings to disrupt and harass, have grown in prevalence as video teleconferencing use surged since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In May, Penn State reported that university police and the FBI were investigating six Zoom bombing incidents involving the display of child pornography during remote meetings and classes.
Penn State officials asked university community members to review steps to secure events and meetings and prevent harassment during Zoom calls, including controlling how participants can enter. The university is also exploring potential additional steps to secure Zoom meetings, according to the statement.