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‘Smack a teacher’: Sonoma County school officials worried about viral TikTok challenges

September’s challenge on the social media app encouraged youth to commit theft and vandalism and record and post their actions. October’s “smack a teacher” challenge has officials worried about physical assault.|

Three weeks into the school year, items began disappearing from bathrooms at Lawrence E. Jones Middle School.

Custodians and other staff discovered a series of missing soap dispensers, soap containers, paper towels and toilet paper, said Melissa Quinn, the school’s principal.

“Anything that sticks to the wall that could be removed was fair game,” Quinn said.

The missing items signaled the “devious licks,” a challenge on social media app TikTok, had spread to the school in Rohnert Park, campus officials said. The challenge encourages youth to commit theft and vandalism and record and post their actions.

Nationwide, it’s resulted in arrests of students for theft of items such as paper towel dispensers and fire extinguishers, or vandalism to bathrooms or fire alarms.

In October, the criminal stakes get higher, according to a list of monthly challenges Bay Area school districts have shared with families as a warning of what may be coming.

The challenge this month is to “smack a teacher” and record each other doing it, school officials say. In December, it involves exposing yourself in the halls and in January, it involves jabbing someone in the breast, according to the list.

The latest set of challenges represents a sharp escalation of a social media trend targeting children and enticing them to commit misdemeanors and felonies, including sexual assault. There’s no identifiable single source for the trends on the Chinese-owned viral video platform.

But it comes at a time when school staff and custodians are already worn thin from the demands of readjusting to in-person learning, including enforcing mask mandates and ramped up cleaning schedules to guard against COVID-19. Locally, the “devious licks” fallout has included vandalism at a handful of campuses, requiring hours of cleanup in some instances and replacement of essential items such as bathroom soap dispensers.

The damages led school administrators and law enforcement agencies to try to head off potentially bad behavior by asking parents to step in.

Thefts and vandalism “had a pretty big impact on our campus,” said Shauna Ferdinandson, principal of West County High School in Sebastopol.

“I figured based on what we saw in September ... I should at least be proactive about it.”

Bathroom vandalism

Across Sonoma County, bathrooms saw most of the damage from the “devious licks” challenge.

In addition to Lawrence E. Jones Middle School, two other campuses in the Wright Elementary School District — Wright Charter School and Robert L. Stevens School — dealt with instances of vandalism to the bathrooms within the first few weeks of the school year. said superintendent Adam Schaible.

Students have mostly been ripping soap dispensers off walls, he said. In some cases, they squirted the soap all over the stalls, he said.

Some students posted videos of themselves committing the vandalism on TikTok, which have since been taken down, Schaible said.

At West County High, students squirted Mios, the colored liquid water flavoring, onto the walls and into toilet bowls, Ferdinandson said. Soap dispensers were stolen, and soap was squirted over the floors.

The school had to close the bathrooms until they could be cleaned and repaired, she said.

The custodial team had to use bleach to get stains out of the toilet bowls, and since the cleaning agent can’t be used when students are on campus, the employees had to come in on the weekend at least once to clean up.

The school disciplined two students in connection with the vandalism, Ferdinandson said. She declined to elaborate on the nature of the discipline beyond saying the students were told to pay the cost of repairs, cleanup and labor: a total of $414.

Conversations and condemnations

Districts in recent weeks have called upon parents to be aware of harmful trends on social media and monitor their kids’ use of social media to deter them from potentially committing crimes.

Once Mayra Perez, superintendent of Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District, learned about the list of challenges, she sent out an email to parents on Oct. 1.

Her message urged parents to talk to their students about the “serious consequences of participating in this trend, or participating in any other activity that involves stealing or damaging school property.”

“The kids are just hooked on social media and TikTok is challenging you to do this stuff that’s disruptive,” Perez said. “School rules and norms―we kind of lost that for a little while.”

On Oct. 1, after multiple reports of vandalized bathrooms, Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety sent out a Nixle alert about the “devious licks“ challenge, warning students about the legal consequences they could face by participating in future challenges, including the “smack a staff member” challenge associated with October.

“In light of this information, Chief (Tim) Mattos wants to make it VERY clear, if you act like a criminal, you will be treated like one,” the release said. “ The Department of Public Safety will hold you accountable if you commit any type of violent act towards staff.”

So far the agency hasn’t needed to get involved, said Deputy Chief Aaron Johnson.

Santa Rosa police are aware of the challenges, but have not fielded any reports from school officials, said Sgt. Christopher Mahurin, the department spokesman.

Schools have taken varying approaches to discourage participation in the challenges. At Lawrence E. Jones Middle School, leaders appealed to students’ empathy for the staff who had to clean up after them.

Administrators visited every classroom to have a conversation with students about their “social media footprint,” emphasizing the impacts their actions may have on themselves and others, Quinn said.

“We encouraged them before they post anything or participate in a virtual challenge to consider whether or not it’s kind, thoughtful or helpful,” Quinn said.

In those conversations, administrators reminded students of the time and effort school groundskeepers spend making the campus beautiful for them, all to have that effort erased by a TikTok challenge.

That seemed to have resonated with students, Quinn said. The bathroom vandalism has significantly ebbed.

Going forward

The origin of the list administrators circulated to their staff and families in recent weeks isn’t clear. Ferdinandson said one of her vice principals got it from another district, and Wright and Cotati-Rohnert Park got the list from West County High.

Other school districts across the region and the state have braced for a similar escalation in student misconduct.

But Jennifer Dougherty, a senior at Windsor High School, said she has never seen a list on TikTok itself detailing a different challenge each month. A week into October, she hadn’t heard of any of her classmates scheming to smack a staff member.

That isn’t to say TikTok isn’t a regular topic of conversation at school.

“I hear it mentioned in almost every class,” Dougherty said. “Communication between students and teachers about TikTok is really common.”

She thinks that’s why reports about the monthly challenges spread. Dougherty has seen TikTok videos of students stealing things, but she doesn’t think any were local. And since none of the female restrooms at her school were touched, it hasn’t really disrupted her life much, she said.

Carissa Stoudt, co-student body president at Casa Grande High School, said she heard about the challenge at school and she’s mostly seen sarcastic videos of strangers with handfuls of soap they were “stealing” from the dispensers.

She hasn’t heard of it happening at her school and doesn’t believe students at her school would go as far to hurt their teachers, no matter how much homework they may assign.

“I personally think this trend is something few people have done but I think the majority of students would never do something like this... I’m hoping that’s the truth,” Stoudt said.

Administrators, too, expressed hope that their students would make wise choices.

“My message is, we should never think that any social media platform is looking out for the students’ or kids’ best interests,” Ferdinandson said. “When we have TikTok challenges, we can’t assume that it’s OK because it’s on social media.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been revised to note that Lawrence E. Jones Middle School is in Rohnert Park, not southwest Santa Rosa.

Contact Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Contact Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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