Less than a month into the new school year and principals at Harwood Union Middle and High School are contending with a social media prank gone too far.

High School Co-Principals Laurie Greenberg and Megan McDonough and Assistant Principal for the Middle School Duane Pierson addressed the topic in an email last Friday to students and parents: “This week the Harwood Community experienced some upsetting and harmful behavior spurred by the phenomenon on TikTok called ‘devious licks’.”

Earlier this month, posts with the hashtag #deviouslicks took off on TikTok, a social media platform for sharing videos that’s popular with middle and high school students. It was used to label short clips with teens showing off items they had stolen from or destroyed at their schools.

The stolen and vandalized items included many things found in school bathrooms such as soap and hand sanitizer dispensers, paper towel holders, mirrors, and even sinks. Other videos show students opening backpacks to show off packaged rapid COVID-19 tests, fire extinguishers, fire alarm handles, computer equipment, pieces of ceiling tiles, microscopes from science labs, plasticware from cafeterias, even a wallet that was allegedly taken from a teacher.

An online search turns up numerous news accounts of the phenomena from across the United States, all this month. A USAToday headline from Sept. 15 says: “Devious licks TikTok challenge encourages students to steal soap dispensers and COVID tests.”

Many accounts trace this to an incident that was posted to TikTok in early September with a video showing that a student had stolen a box of disposable face masks at their school and referred to it as a “devious lick.”

The website UrbanDictionary.com defines the slang term “lick” as: “A successful type of theft which results in an acceptable, impressive and rewarding payday for the protagonist.”

And so it goes on social media that the post got attention and spurred many to follow with their own “devious licks.”

But by Wednesday, Sept. 15, TikTok Communications announced that it was removing all posts with the “#deviouslicks” label and associated with the viral phenomena. In a message on Twitter, the company stated: “We expect our community to create responsibly — online and IRL [in real life]. We’re removing content and redirecting hashtags & search results to our Community Guidelines to discourage such behavior. Please be kind to your schools & teachers.”

At Harwood, it was unclear how many students had taken part in the prank by causing damage or stealing items, or even posting about such incidents online. Enough had occurred however, to prompt the principals to notify the school community.

“The actions of a few have been received by the majority of Harwood students with sadness and frustration,” the administrators wrote. “While the outcomes were only perpetuated by a few at Harwood, the social media craze encouraging such behavior has been participated in by many.”

The principals did not offer details about specific damage or thefts. Social media posts by adults in the community acknowledged hearing about some of these incidents, referring mostly to school restrooms being the targets. Some expressed concern that bathrooms were closed during school hours.

Greenberg and McDonough did not answer messages about the issue prior to their email being sent out. Waitsfield Elementary School Principal Kaiya Korb, who is filling in as acting superintendent while Superintendent Brigid Nease is on leave, replied to a reporter’s inquiry.

“Please know that while there are some bathrooms closed while repairs are being done, there are sufficient bathrooms available to all students,” she said.

Korb didn’t comment on specific damage or what if any consequences students would face for such behavior.

“As always, due to student privacy, we can not share disciplinary action details. However, please know staff are well aware of and have responded to this tik-tok phenomena both as it individually applies to any situations as well as more globally/preventatively,” she said.

The communication to parents and students was part of a Friday email with the first school newsletter of the school year. It stressed that these incidents would be addressed in school. “As a community we will be connecting during assembly and Teaching Advisory to consider how this unfortunate situation can be a learning opportunity that supports us in meeting our following shared goals: Cultivate and maintain a community where all students, staff and families feel safe — seen, heard, understood and respected; Create and maintain a physical environment that reflects a positive school climate and culture,” the principals wrote.

The principals also asked parents to address this at home as well: “To that end, we seek your partnership in discussing this issue with your child. We look forward to continuing to partner with you to support our children in appropriate and healthy use of social media.”

They promised to share resources in upcoming newsletters to support those conversations.

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