Gilbert and other East Valley school districts are struggling with a rash of vandalism fueled by a challenge to teenagers on the social media platform TikTok.
Lured by the desire to score “likes” from their peers around the world, middle and high school students are stealing school property, then posting photos or videos of the items.
The trend has been loosely called “The Bathroom Challenge” or the “Devious Licks Challenge.”
“Lick” is slang for stealing.
And though it started with teens ripping paper and soap dispensers, toilet seats and even faucets from school bathrooms and showing off online, the trend has broadened to include other school property – even fire alarm devices, according to some parents’ reports on various social media platforms.
The vandals’ incentive is to see how many likes they can garner. Some news organizations across the country and around the world are reporting some images have drawn thousands of likes and millions of views.
The vandalism has provoked warnings of dire repercussions and pleas to parents and students from high school principals in Gilbert Public Schools, Chandler Unified, Higley Unified and Tempe Union High School districts and Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis.
“We are aware of a challenge on the social media app TikTok that is prompting students to cause damage to our schools and schools across the nation,” Fourlis posted last week.
“Please know that consequences for stealing or destroying school property are severe, and can include expulsion and police involvement. “Please discuss with your child the severe consequences of participating in this challenge.”
In Chandler, Casteel High School Principal Jayson Phillips told parents and guardians the trend has damaged the campus.
“If a Casteel student is caught destroying or stealing school property from our campus, there will be school suspension, full restitution, and a police report,” Phillips warned.
Hamilton High Principal Michael De La Torre wrote a similar warning to parents last week, reminding them “damaging school property is a felony.”
Stating “we are sorry and disappointed it has come to this,” Desert Vista officials said the vandalism “has necessitated our limiting of bathrooms that are open at certain times, particularly boys bathrooms.
“We have reduced the number of open bathrooms,” Desert Visa’s announcement continued, adding it was “still providing an adequate number of bathrooms for students to use and assigned security to monitor bathrooms regularly that are open.”
It too reminded families that “if a Desert Vista student is caught destroying or stealing school property from our campus, we will take full documentary actions to include restitution and law enforcement involvement.”
Higley spokeswoman Theresa Joseph said the district has not limited bathroom access, but has warned families "that HUSD has a zero tolerance policy regarding this type of behavior and we will press charges for vandalism. We have expressed that parents and guardians should talk with their children about this trend and the consequences of participating."
She said high schools have born the brunt of vandalism and that "some was destructive" and "created more work for our support staff.
In districts where bathroom access has been restricted, long lines of students waiting to use bathrooms have been reported.
And at a time when districts are encouraging students to be more attentive to hygiene to combat COVID-19, numerous parents have posted that their children complain of no soap in bathrooms because the dispensers were gone.
“Bathrooms are closed at Akimel as well,” wrote the parent of a child in Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School. “My daughter said kids are going to start bringing their own soap. Who steals soap during a pandemic?”
Kyrene spokeswoman Erin Helm did not mention Akimel, but said the K-8 Kyrene Traditional Academy has been hit, along with the grades 6-8 Altadeña and Pueblo middle schools, adding that officials were “temporarily limiting bathroom use at Altadeña.”
Gilbert Public Schools spokeswoman Dawn Astestenis said, “There have been some issues related to this TikTok challenge at a few of our secondary schools. Earlier this week our schools reached out to our parents and families with communications regarding this.”
But she declined to elaborate.
Scottsdale Unified spokeswoman Susan Norman confirmed schools there also were confronted by vandalism but did not offer specifics.
Virtually no East Valley district had any cost estimates on the damage or, like Gilbert and Mesa, did not respond to questions about it.
Nor has the vandalism been brought to the attention of governing boards in public meetings over the past month.
Beyond Arizona, one TikTok user posted a video showing an assistant principal parking sign he stole.
The video drew over 20,000 views and a whopping 9.7 million views, according to The Sun’s American edition.
Atlanta CBS46 reported that a student in one Fulton County, Georgia, school tried to rip a urinal from the wall.
ByteDance, the China company that owns TikTok, did not respond to the Gilbert Sun News’ request for an interview.
But CBS 46 said the TikTok spokesperson said, “We expect our community to stay safe and create responsibly, and we do not allow content that promotes or enables criminal activities. We are removing this content and redirecting hashtags and search results to our community guidelines to discourage such behavior.”
Those guidelines detail a range of forbidden criminal and abusive behaviors but do not specifically identify stealing and vandalism among them.
TikTok in the past has removed and forbidden posts that involve so-called teen challenges that have resulted in serious injury.
Most recently, it banned the so-called “crate challenge” where kids were encouraged to stack milk crates into a pyramid formation and then try to climb them from one side to the other without falling. But challengers often fell, some incurring broken limbs.
One parent who posted to Facebook about the vandalism, however, offered perhaps a more effective antidote to the crime wave. She said she won’t let her daughter add TikTok to her phone.