As students resume distance learning, a viral social media post by a Northside Independent School District mom has left parents in San Antonio’s largest school district asking what educators are doing to secure the digital devices being used by their children.

Parents took to Facebook on Tuesday to discuss a sexually explicit pop-up ad that appeared on one elementary school student’s NISD-issued Chromebook laptop while he was completing an online assignment for his music class. The mother of the student publicly shared a screenshot of the pop-up on her Facebook account accompanied by a post asking other parents how to block it. 

“WHAT!!?!!!! No way that’s Ridiculous,” one commenter wrote about the pop-up. “Oh hell no!!” another commented. The post has received 140 shares and over 150 comments since Tuesday.

The NISD mother wrote back that while she was figuring out how to block the pop-up, she was inundated with several other sex-related ads. In an update posted later, she wrote she had been in touch with NISD, which had quickly responded to the incident and told her they were investigating the situation. 

“They contacted me in a timely manner and [were] very helpful to help resolve the issue,” she wrote. “Please watch your kids and talk to them about internet safety.”

The parent declined to comment further on the incident. 

NISD assistant superintendent and head of technology services Lori Jones said the district has strict filters in place for students using their devices and web services. NISD distributed approximately 30,000 devices for the new school year, she said. 

Jones said the pop-up was the result of a web extension downloaded either by the student or a previous student using the Chromebook. 

“The device had a Chrome extension installed on it for Minecraft, and the pop-ups were a part of that extension,” Jones said.

Minecraft is a popular “sandbox” video game played by kids and teens that allows them to build their own block-shaped characters and world. 

The district has security measures in place for regular pop-ups, but NISD doesn’t ban students from downloading web extensions since many educational platforms require them, Jones said. As soon as district officials learned about the incident, Jones said she and the NISD tech support team worked with the family to remove the extension remotely. 

In wake of the incident, other districts are also alerting parents to security measures in place on their own issued devices. 

North East ISD spokeswoman Aubrey Chancellor said each of the 28,000-plus devices distributed in San Antonio’s second-largest district has strict web filters installed on it, and NEISD has instructed its teachers on best Zoom practices to avoid “Zoom-bombing” – hackers joining virtual meetings and classrooms uninvited.  

“We have also reminded students to please not share Zoom links,” Chancellor said. “Still, sometimes people find ways to get into the Zoom when they shouldn’t. NEISD is considering alternative videoconferencing solutions because of this.”

Leslie Price, with San Antonio Independent School District, said every device distributed to SAISD students has a “Children’s Internet Protection Act compliant content filter” installed on it to block adult content and malware.

Last spring, SAISD distributed more than 41,000 laptops and 3,500 Wi-Fi hotspots, Price said. Most SAISD students, apart from graduating seniors, kept the devices provided last spring over the summer, she added. Additional devices were distributed at campuses.

In addition to the filter, the district invested in two products last year that allows its educators to manage and secure all district devices on and off the network, Price said. 

“Not all solutions have the ability to manage and secure off-network, while the student is at home – our products do,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Jones encouraged parents to talk with their children about internet safety, regardless of security measures districts have put in place. 

“No tech solution is 100 percent,” Jones said. “Just as a teacher would be managing students in a classroom, we encourage parents to stay watchful over their students at home.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.