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Wisconsin school officials say TikTok trend of stealing, damaging school property on the wane

'Devious licks' trend had students taking soap dispensers, office supplies from buildings and filming

Blue lockers line a hallway in a school building.
A student walks down a hallway with lockers Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, at Hackett Elementary School in Beloit, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

When Neenah schools reopened this fall, communications director Jim Strick said school administrators and teachers already had a lot on their plate — the start of the school year is always busy, and the addition of COVID-19 precautions like masks and in-school testing made it even more so.

It wasn’t an ideal time, he said, to also have soap and paper towel dispensers vanish from school bathrooms.

“It was just really a burden on the administration the first couple of weeks of school, especially dealing with all the COVID mitigation strategies and things that go into restarting the school year,” he said. “To have to deal with this, it was more of a nuisance than anything.”

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Strick said maybe 10 to 20 out of the high school’s roughly 2,000 students participated in the “devious licks” challenge, a TikTok trend that encouraged students to film and post videos of themselves stealing or damaging school property like soap dispensers or school phones.

Strick said the pranks have mostly stopped as students started getting caught, in many cases because other students brought the videos to administrators’ attention. All the stolen items were recovered and most were still in good enough shape to put back in their place.

“I think a lot of these students forgot that we have video cameras all over the school, they’re posting the videos themselves,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of secrecy involved in these thefts, so it made it very easy to apprehend most of them.”

In the Janesville School District, Craig High School saw similar issues, though spokesperson Patrick Gasper said the district can’t say for sure that it was part of the TikTok trend, and that administrators couldn’t find any proof that the one video they’d been made aware of had ever even made it to the social media platform.

Gasper said the district sent an email to parents early on, “essentially trying to nip this in the bud” by asking parents to talk to their children about it.

“We’d like to leave it at that,” Gasper wrote in an email. “We’d prefer that reporting not be a source to provide ‘ideas’ to students/others who may be ready to make a bad choice.”

Tom Wohlleber, executive director of the Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association, said his organization — which has public and private school members, including representatives in about half of Wisconsin’s school districts — initially heard from a couple members that they had seen vandalism in line with the TikTok trend. WSSCA then sent out an email to all its members and heard back from more than 30 saying they had been seeing similar damage and vandalism, he said.

“It’s ranged from ripping off or carrying off soap dispensers, towel dispensers, hand dryers, the toilet dispensers, putting things into the toilets and trying to stop them, and also scratching or writing on the stalls themselves,” he said. “Several of the schools have experienced damaged beyond the restroom ranging from a ceiling tile missing to stolen or damaged signage to, several schools have reported some stolen equipment — telephones, teachers’ cell phones.”

While Strick, in Neenah, and Gasper, in Janesville, said the trend seems to be dying down, Wohlleber said he’s still worried about future damage, especially if it reaches equipment like fire extinguishers, defibrillators or other school supplies needed in an emergency.

“We’re hearing through the grapevine that this (trend) may be something that’s ongoing but coming up in a different form in the future,” he said.

In Platteville, the middle and high school principals and Joshua Stowe, community resource officer, posted a video to Facebook warning students away from attempting any “licks” and reminding them that disciplinary consequences could include suspension from sports and other school activities.

Instead, the two principals said they wanted to get another trend to catch on.

“Mr. Julius and I have actually been brainstorming, we have an idea and we’d like you to join us — it’s called ‘Dance with your (community resource officer),” said Platteville High School principal Jacob Crase, before he and Platteville Middle School principal Jason Julius busted out a few dance moves with Stowe.