TOPEKA, Kan. – Kids across the U.S. are posting TikTok videos of themselves vandalizing school bathrooms and stealing soap dispensers and even turf from football fields, bedeviling school administrators seeking to contain the viral internet trend.
The “devious licks” challenge that swept social media this week is plaguing principals and school district administrators who already must navigate a bitter debate over requiring masks to keep COVID-19 in check. Some schools have had to more closely monitor or even shut down bathrooms, where much of the damage is occurring.
No section of the nation appears to have been untouched. In northeast Kansas, Lawrence High School had to close several bathrooms after students pried soap dispensers off the walls. Then, students tried to steal the “closed” signs, so staff is guarding the bathrooms, even the closed ones, said 17-year-old student Cuyler Dunn, relaying Friday what he called “total destruction.”
“Some of them were to the point where they were borderline unusable,” said Dunn, who is also the co-editor-in-chief of Lawrence High’s student newspaper. “Locks on stalls had been taken off.”
While social media did spawn the Ice Bucket Challenge to raise money for research into the condition known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, it also led to a rash of poisonings several years ago when teenagers swallowed pods of laundry detergent for the “Tide Pods challenge.” The latest trend follows close upon a viral challenge to walk on stacks of milk crates.
Some school officials are reluctant to say much about “devious licks,” which is slang for theft. In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools spokesperson Kathleen Miller emailed that officials were aware of several incidents of property damage and that “disciplinary action has and will be taken.”
Outside of that statement, Miller noted that the school district was saying little to avoid “encouraging copy-cat behavior.”
A spokesperson said TikTok was removing “devious licks” content and redirecting hashtags and search results to its guidelines to discourage the behavior and that it doesn’t allow content that “promotes or enables criminal activities.”
While some school officials say they don’t know what caused the “devious licks” challenge to go viral, others chalk it up to a desire for peers’ attention or adolescents’ lack of impulse control. Some incidents have involved smashing things, like bathroom mirrors and sinks.
Dunn said that his Kansas high school has a tradition of senior pranks that led someone to set chickens loose inside last year. But he said some students are starting to worry about the repercussions of “devious licks,” not only for kids who get caught but also for big events as the school tries to prevent thefts. His newspaper wrote about “devious licks” this week.
He said a detour sign taken from another school after a football game is in Lawrence High’s parking lot and that students even stole a small section of artificial turf off the school’s football field.
“The general vibe around the student body is that this is just another one of those funny things that high schoolers do,” he said. “But it has started to reach a point where it is starting to get in the way of things.”
Northeast of Sacramento, California, the Rocklin school district has seen students destroy soap dispensers, damage faucets, plug toilets with whole rolls of toilet paper and tear mirrors and railings off walls, then share videos and photos on social media.
Spokesperson Sundeep Dosanjh said that the damage can close bathrooms for extended periods, an issue potentially made worse by “national supply chain disruptions” that have arisen amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Police in the central Florida city of Bartow, located about 50 miles east of Tampa, said they arrested a 15-year-old student who vandalized a new building’s bathroom by tearing off soap dispensers and leaving one in a sink.
“He said he did it because of this TikTok challenge and he wanted to be cool,” police Chief Bryan Dorman said.
In the Cherry Creek school district serving an affluent Denver neighborhood and nearby trendy suburbs, the district sent parents of middle and high school students a letter warning that kids who are caught face being suspended, could be forced to make restitution and might have their cases forwarded to police.
Districts in Miami and Scottsdale, Arizona, sent similar warnings to parents.
Cherry Creek spokesperson Abbe Smith said its schools had seen “a handful” of incidents of damage to or theft of soap dispensers, toilet paper dispensers and fire extinguishers.
In southern Alabama, Robertsdale High School’s principal said a student there is facing criminal charges after he was caught on surveillance cameras swiping a fire extinguisher. He also was suspended from school.
In Wichita, Kansas, the district has found that punishments like suspensions aren’t effective in stopping such behavior and community service is the more likely response, said Terri Moses, its director of safety services. The district’s middle schools have lost soap dispensers, paper towels and toilet paper.
And, she said, the district warns students that what they post now could hurt their chances of getting jobs in their early 20s.
“What they’re putting out on social media is gong to be with them for a long time,” Moses said. “We’re trying very hard to relay that.”