Online language app removed from Rainbow schools after hacker sends 9-year-old girl inappropriate message

A few parents at Monetville Public School have had to talk with their children after getting an unplanned lesson in inappropriate online behaviour during French class.

The grades 2, 3 and 4 class was using their Google Chromebooks to load the language program Duolingo, when a nine-year-old girl received a message from an unknown source.

Her mother has been told it was a naked mannequin, with a piece of paper covering its privates, propositioning her daughter for virtual sex.

CTV News is not identifying the family to protect the child involved in the matter.

When the teacher saw the message, the computer was immediately removed.

"On Monday, I got a phone call from the board assuring me the board has now (removed) the app through all Rainbow school districts," the mother told CTV. "It was sent through Rainbow emails, so they had to go through each one and delete it and it should have been done by today."

She's asked to see screenshots of what her daughter saw but still hasn't been provided with copies of the message.

'We haven't had this kind of talk before'

"We haven't had this kind of talk before, really," the mother said. "I kept it really vague with her until it has to come down to the nitty-gritty so she wasn't too, too shook up about it. I wasn't very happy with it because I've expressed some concern about these apps."

"There were more apps that I was concerned about than this one, so if this one could have problems, who knows?" she said. "I begged the board woman to take a look at what they have on their computers."

The Rainbow District School Board confirmed there was an incident involving school computers during the French class and that they're taking the situation very seriously.

In a statement, they write, in part:

"This week, all student accounts on Duolingo were deactivated and deleted. In an abundance of caution, we have now blocked the use of Duolingo in our schools."

The board said the app provided independent lessons and practise opportunities for French as a second language, but it had recently introduced a feature that mimics social media platforms and allows users to contact each other. That's what resulted in the breach.

It's since been reported to Duolingo and the Greater Sudbury Police Service.

They add they have used the app for several years without incident.

Safe learning a priority

CTV News reached out to Duolingo for comment. A spokesperson said they are connecting directly with the school to learn more.

"Ensuring safe online education is a priority for Duolingo," the spokesperson said. "Duolingo does not have any in-app messaging capabilities and our Duolingo for Schools platform is specifically designed for teachers to use with their students. It includes additional child-safety features teachers can enable."

Shaylla Virtanen's daughter is in the same class as the young girl who received the message. She wanted to come forward to ensure other parents are aware of what happened.

"I was shocked," Virtanen said. "The Rainbow school board is supposed to have such a ... secure (system). I mean, we trust these people with our kids during the day and you know with COVID and everything else going on, they want to push more at-home learning with our kids. I don't trust the Internet."

The mother whose daughter received the inappropriate message said she's relieved to hear police are now involved.  

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