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TikTok fuels bathroom vandalism, teacher targeting, and security pranks at Philly-area schools

In videos that have swept TikTok this school year, students have filmed themselves doing everything from dumping soap dispensers to ripping partitions off walls.

Samples from TikTok videos show how the latest "devious licks" challenge is destroying and closing school bathrooms.
Samples from TikTok videos show how the latest "devious licks" challenge is destroying and closing school bathrooms.Read moreDominique DeMoe

It was a little weird, Ridley School District Superintendent Lee Ann Wentzel said, when custodians in one of the district’s elementary schools reported this fall that a toilet had been clogged with paper towels. Then it happened at another one of her schools.

“That’s when we started to find out that there’s this little challenge going on,” Wentzel said.

In videos that have swept TikTok this school year and commanded the attention of children across the country, students from elementary to high school grades have filmed themselves doing everything from dumping soap dispensers (and filling them with urine) to ripping partitions off walls — acts they’ve dubbed “devious licks.” After reports of bathroom havoc began circulating, the social media platform says it removed videos tagged with that phrase, though not all have been taken down — and only more challenges have sprung up to replace them.

Some schools are wary about a new “slap a teacher” challenge for October (not to mention one holiday challenge urging boys to “deck the halls and show their” private parts), while others are dealing with additional social media-induced misbehavior: On Thursday, Cheltenham High School briefly went on lockdown after a threat the school’s principal attributed to “the result of a social media challenge on TikTok.”

It’s yet another disruption in a school year already disrupted by staff shortages, bus challenges, and of course, COVID-19 protocols.

The Pennsylvania State Police warned schools last month about the bathroom vandalism trend, and some local agencies and districts have been alerting parents about newly emerging challenges.

“They’ll put it on social media, like, ‘Oh hey, we’ll pay you $300 if you call a bomb threat into school,’” said Cheltenham’s principal Renato Lajara, who didn’t specify the threat received Thursday. “Or ‘We’ll pay you $500 if you steal Mr. So-and-So’s laptop from his classroom and post a picture of it.’ ”

At one Philadelphia high school, officials were reluctant to talk publicly about repeated vandalism that has led the school to close two floors of bathrooms — worried it would spur more of the behavior. (The closures, attributed in part to lack of staff to monitor activity, have forced students to skip bathroom trips or go out of their way to use the facilities.)

In the Neshaminy School District, students say vandalism has prompted bathroom closures, security stationed outside restrooms and limits on how many kids can enter at a given time. The Pottsgrove School District said it’s redirected hall monitors to stand outside bathrooms, while at Washington Township High School in Gloucester County, officials issued preemptive messages to parents and students.

”We appeal to their emotions — this is your home, please be respectful,” said Principal Jonathan Strout. Washington Township also has a system that requires students to scan IDs to get in and out of bathrooms, “so we have a clear picture of who’s in the bathroom and when,” Strout said. “We’d be able to target vandalism pretty quickly.”

Some schools say vandalism experienced at the start of the year has since died down. In the Downingtown Area School District, “we have experienced a few minor instances of vandalism in our bathrooms,” said spokesperson Jennifer Shealy. Punishment is generally paying for the damages, she said.

Administrators alerted families that there could be criminal charges associated with other online challenges — like striking a teacher. “We haven’t had any of that, thankfully,” Shealy said.

The prospect, however, has put some on edge. “Educators beware!” the state teachers’ association in California wrote in a memo to its members. “As if widespread vandalism in our schools last month wasn’t enough, the same ‘challenge’ circulating on social media networks TikTok and Twitter is now calling for students to ‘slap a staff member.’ ”

Last week in Lancaster County, South Carolina, “we actually had an elementary student assault a teacher by striking her in the back of the head,” a district official wrote on Facebook. “This type of behavior, just like theft and destruction of property, is not a prank. It’s criminal behavior.”

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong went so far as to ask TikTok officials to travel to the state to meet with educators and parents to learn about what the social media platform-inspired trends mean for schools.

Tong, in a letter to TikTok’s CEO, wrote that the company is “unable to control the spread of harmful content. Simply put, whatever TikTok has been doing to enforce its terms of service has not been working and merits serious review and reform.” (A TikTok spokesperson told the Washington Post it had not found content related to striking teachers on its platform, and believed people were learning of the dare from “sources other than TikTok.”)

Whatever kids are talking about on social media inevitably makes its way into schools, creating a gray area for educators who have sometimes struggled with their role in policing online — but out-of-school — speech, said Upper Darby Superintendent Dan McGarry.

“There’s not a day that goes by in any one of our schools, where we’re not investigating some element of social media and the impact it’s having,” McGarry said. In a recent meeting with his high school administrators, they identified social media as one of the top three challenges they’re facing.

While a fire set in a girls’ bathroom that prompted the evacuation of the high school last month wasn’t a result of a TikTok challenge, McGarry said, the district has been dealing with other social media drama — including a group of students who posted a TikTok video mocking a teacher. (That also didn’t appear to be linked to any “slap a teacher” challenge, he said.)

What concerns McGarry is students’ desire to film inappropriate behavior to get attention from classmates. When a fight breaks out, “they pull out their phone and video it like it’s a TV show,” he said. Sometimes that impulse is beneficial, he said — but in this case, kids seem to be viewing it as a competition to create videos of fighting or other behavior they then share online.

“The peer pressure is ‘If I can get a reaction from friends, if they think I’m funny,’ ” he said. “That’s what this has become, and there are no real guardrails for it.”

In Ridley, where the district informed students that damaging bathrooms would be considered acts of vandalism or theft, “we kind of got out relatively unscathed,” Wentzel said, with few restroom incidents in the upper grades.

But “evidently, there was another little lick,” Wentzel said: During a recent game, the opposing team stole all the “Rocking R” magnets from Ridley parents’ cars.