Wed, October 27, 2021

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Students are destroying bathrooms, swiping school supplies in latest TikTok challenge gone awry


In recent weeks, an unusual phenomenon has rippled through schools across much of the country: As students have returned to class, bathroom toilets, soap dispensers, science lab microscopes, parking signs and desks have disappeared or been damaged.

Enticed by a viral TikTok challenge, students have pilfered or vandalized items at their schools and then showed off their antics, or "devious licks," on the popular social media platform - often as a sped-up version "Ski Ski BasedGod" by rapper Lil' B plays in the background.

"In two school years unlike any other, this is absolutely the last thing we need to be dealing with," said Jeffrey Haney, a spokesman for the Canyons School District in a Salt Lake City suburb, where bathroom mirrors have been shattered and toilets flooded.

The "Devious Licks challenge" has sparked condemnation from already-stressed school leaders, a handful of arrests and now action from TikTok, which announced Wednesday that it will remove videos associated with the trend and redirect related hashtags after reports of schools from California to Connecticut experiencing vandalism and theft.

"We do not allow content that promotes or enables criminal activities," a spokesperson for TikTok told The Washington Post in a statement Friday, noting that content like the Devious Licks challenge goes against the platform's community guidelines.

Melissa Laudani, principal at Lawton Chiles Middle School in Tallahassee, said the move from TikTok only goes so far: As soon as one hashtag is deleted, alternate phrases or spellings - such as "Diabolical Licks" or "Devious Liks" - pop up.

Laudani said private Facebook groups for principals have been awash in recent days of administrators commiserating over the latest challenge.

"It's added stress on the teachers, the students and the staff," she told The Post.

News reports from around the country suggest that the pranks carry a high price tag: A San Antonio-area school shared photos of shattered mirrors and dislodged soap dispensers in the bathroom, while a Southern California school said paper towel dispensers and fire alarms had gone missing. At one eastern Michigan high school, the principal reported that the trend had devolved beyond swiping trophies for social media clout and into "malicious vandalism," like intentionally clogged toilets.

School administrators are responding by locking bathrooms and posting supervision outside the doors during the rare times the restrooms are accessible. Messages in public service announcements and letters to parents range from imploring students to help their overburdened school staff to warning that students may face fines, replacement costs, in-school suspension or even criminal prosecution.

TikTok challenges commonly grow from a silly dare or an attempt at a memorable reaction - like the Milk Crate and Frozen Honey challenges - into a viral trend in which participants try to outdo already outlandish feats (often against the pleading of medical professionals).

"It's all for likes and what they feel is popularity online; they want to be famous," said Laudani, the Florida principal who has been an educator for nearly 30 years. "It's not even like the old saying of '15 minutes of fame,' it's more like 30 seconds."

For some school administrators, the Devious Licks challenge is not only frustrating, it's baffling in a year when so many were eager to return to in-person schooling.

Haney, with the Canyons School District in Utah, said even though his district is more fortunate than some with investment from taxpayers, it doesn't have money to spare.

"Every penny we get we want to invest in the classroom," he said.

Principals in the district have reported broken mirrors, soap smeared all over bathroom walls and floors, and even damage to the heat sensors in the sprinkler system that caused the alarm to "ring and ring and ring."

The damage estimate at Canyons is still being totaled, but Haney said there's already been an impact on staff time.

"Our custodians mostly end up responsible for cleaning up," he said. "In this day and age, we've asked our custodians to be on the front lines, asking them to make sure our schools are as clean as possible. And every time they have to clean up this mess, it takes time away from making our schools a safe and welcoming environment."

The behavior in his district goes beyond kids being kids, he argued. For some of the older students, there could be serious consequences: Students could face felony charges if the damage exceeds $1,000, he said.

"Let's not forget many of our seniors are over 18, they could face charges as an adult," he said.

Many of the district's 34,000 students are fed up, too, Haney added. In Utah, students can access an app called SafeUT, managed by the Utah State Board of Education. Originally launched as a suicide intervention tool, students can also use it to report unsafe behavior: In recent days, students in the Canyons District have used it to report damage associated with the Devious Licks challenge, he said.

On Friday, videos associated with the challenge were still easily accessible on TikTok, sometimes under alternate spellings or slightly reworded versions of the "DeviousLicks" hashtag.

Snippets of unzipped backpacks that revealed stolen soap dispensers were still plentiful, but a new trend had already emerged: Students pointing their phones at the wall or ceiling as an exasperated principal is heard over the public address system telling students to knock it off.

Published : September 18, 2021