The early Friday morning hacking was one of many Twitter accounts compromised across the nation in recent days, said Superintendent Wayne Gent at a Friday afternoon news conference at the School District’s main office.
“It was highly offensive and doesn’t represent anything that our School District represents, our values or our mission,” Gent said. “It was a sickening display from somebody.”
The tweets began just before 4 a.m.: “After heavy consideration, our district has decided to ban all African Americans from our School District.”
A second tweet just after 4 a.m. was a reply to a Palm Beach County School District tweet about school grades: “Removal of African Americans will boost grades by 200%!”
The third tweet, sent about 4:05 a.m., was a black-and-white photograph of a lynching.
“It’s reprehensible,” said Deputy Superintendent Dr. Jon Prince about 11 a.m. “I just can’t describe how disgusting it is to wake up to that and see that. You never want anybody to see anything like that.”
After nearly nine hours of silence from the account, more tweets were sent about 12:45 p.m., linking to what appeared to be other hacked accounts on Twitter.
“This was an outside group,” Gent said. “It was not internal from any employees within the school district.”
St. Lucie County school officials worked from when the first tweets were sent for more than nine hours Friday to take back control of the School District’s Twitter account.
Gent said they immediately contacted Twitter through the abuse notification process online. However, Prince said, they were working through the internet and not through live people.
Then, they waited.
“It’s quite a process to get through to Twitter,” Gent said. “There’s no hotline that you call. It’s done through emails. It’s done through texting.”
He said they didn’t get a response from the organization. The next thing he knew, the tweets had been removed by about 1:20 p.m.
“It took way too long,” Gent said. “It should’ve been done immediately.”
School officials also notified the Fort Pierce Police Department and Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Gent said. The Police Department is leading the investigation with support from FDLE, said Angela Starke, a spokeswoman for FDLE.
Law enforcement officials will subpoena records from Twitter accounts, Gent said. In addition to figuring out who caused the hacking, he also plans on reviewing security protocols at the district to see what can be done to prevent this from happening again.
“That’s something with technology today,” Gent said. “Everybody’s vulnerable — federal government, military, government agencies, school districts.”
The hacking is being investigated as a hate crime, said Ed Cunningham, spokesman for the Police Department.
Gent said it should be.
“The very nature of the postings themselves are just horrific and very offensive,” Gent said. “It has no place in our society.”
A police detective and others in the department who are skilled in social media are working the case with FDLE officials to figure out who sent the tweets, Cunningham said.
“We take this very seriously,” Cunningham said. “It’s very offensive to our whole community.”
Police officials advised every account, whether it’s an individual or an organization, to check their security settings on their social media accounts.
Prince said he doesn’t know why anyone would want to hack the Twitter account of a local school district.
“Who knows why people do the sometimes awful things that they do,” Prince said.
About 30 percent of the St. Lucie County School District's slightly more than 40,000 students are African American, according to the district's website and statistics from the state Department of Education.
The School District posted the following message about 8:15 a.m. on its Facebook page:
“The St. Lucie Public Schools' Twitter Account has been compromised by individuals not associated with or representing the organization in any manner,” according to the post. “The district is working earnestly to remove inappropriate postings and remedy this matter as quickly as possible.”
Vicki Rodriguez, president of St. Lucie County Classroom Teachers Association, said didn’t blame the hack on the School District, which worked to fix the problem.
“It’s very frustrating,” Rodriguez said. “It’s appalling to me, and it’s appalling to the folks at the district that I talked to.”
Twitter account security tips
Fort Pierce police officials advised following Twitter’s best practices to help keep accounts secure.
Use a strong password that you don’t reuse on other websites.
Use login verification.
Require email and phone number to request a reset password link or code.
Be cautious of suspicious links and always make sure you’re on twitter.com before you enter your login information.
Never give your username and password out to third parties, especially those promising to get you followers, make you money or verify you.
Make sure your computer software, including your browser, is up-to-date with the most recent upgrades and anti-virus software.
If you think your account has been compromised, visit Twitter’s troubleshooting article online.