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