York County Family Court Judge David Guyton was sitting in his chambers one morning in early October when two of his colleagues approached him with an unusual idea.
The court’s juvenile solicitor and juvenile public defender — two attorneys who typically locked horns across the courtroom — had come together because they wanted Guyton to make an example out of 13 students who recently participated in a series of viral social media challenges disrupting South Carolina schools.
The challenges, shared across the popular social media platform TikTok, encouraged students to take part in “devious licks,” a dare where students would damage school property, film the destruction and upload videos of it online.
Adolescent first-time offenders normally wouldn’t appear before Guyton, but the children were a small contingent of students vandalizing schools across the state. The solicitor and public defender wanted to signal to other students participating in these challenges that their acts of destruction would not be seen as youthful indiscretions. In a rare move, Guyton, a former Marine who still keeps his haircut “high and tight,” and the attorneys allowed reporters into his courtroom on Oct. 13.
They wanted the judge’s message to spread before the problem got worse.
The youths were granted arbitration and a chance to avoid having a criminal record that could affect their ability later to get a job or qualify for scholarships. Guyton warned the young teens that he would not be as lenient should they return. As he spoke, the children’s parents nodded and gave him thumbs-ups.
Guyton said that people often told him that he was intimidating in his courtroom, which he considered a good thing.
“That was part of our purpose, to scare them,” he said.
Since Sept. 1, districts across the state have absorbed at least $20,000 worth of damages and made upwards of two dozen disciplinary referrals in connection with the destruction, a Post and Courier inquiry of South Carolina’s 25 largest public school systems found. The TikTok challenges are not only occurring in South Carolina but are also part of a larger social media trend frustrating educators coast to coast.
Officials at the Alaska Middle College School in Anchorage said on their district website staff have spent an “enormous amount of time cleaning up and investigating” incidents of TikTok inspired vandalism. Several Vermont high schools have reported cases of vandalism in school’s bathrooms that officials linked to the social media trend.
“I get on a call every week with chapter presidents from other states, and they’re experiencing it too,” said South Carolina Education Association President Sherry East.
At first glance, the challenges may seem innocuous: A reboot of viral sensations like the ice bucket challenge on Facebook. But where the purpose of that was to raise awareness and money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research, the latest dares are more nefarious.
With a reach of nearly 80 million U.S. users — predominantly between the ages of 16 and 34 according to company statistics — TikTok and its model of short-form video sharing has become a global force. In 2020, it was the third fastest growing brand behind Zoom and Peacock, data intelligence company Morning Consult reported.
East and other advocacy groups have published lists of monthly social media propositions and fear the worst is to come. November dares students to kiss their friend’s significant other at school. Others involve exposing genitals, or tells students to “jab a breast.”
Around the Palmetto State, vandalism has been documented in Beaufort County, Kershaw County, Lexington County Districts One and Three and Sumter County. Richland Two, a suburban Columbia district that serves 27,000 students, has seen more than $17,000 worth of damage to school facilities, including replacement of 228 soap dispensers.
District officials are trying to stop the incidents, but the vandalism is coming on the heels of the delta variant that spread rapidly through South Carolina schools during the beginning of the school year. During the first seven weeks of school, 15 districts went fully virtual, 233 schools shut down, and at least 156,169 students had to learn remotely as education officials tried to control the spread, according to an analysis by The Post and Courier.
During an Oct. 12 board meeting, Richland One Commissioner Cheryl Harris said that she understood why people wanted to hold districts accountable for the vandalism, but pointed out that the children were destroying school property because people online were encouraging them to.
“We’re already playing catch-up because of COVID, the last thing we need is this kind of stuff,” she said.
The disruptions are also exacerbating overworked educators, sapping morale. In the midst of the online frenzy, an elementary school student in Lancaster County slapped their teacher during the “slap a teacher” day challenge. East said the assault has impacted some teachers’ desire to educate kids.
“Nobody will be a substitute right now; they don’t want to take the chance of some kid hitting them,” East said.
The district declined to comment on the incident.
South Carolina lawmakers have started to take notice of the property destruction, and told The Post and Courier they do not plan to deal with it lightly. Gov. Henry McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said that every single one of the incidents of vandalism and assault “needs to be prosecuted as they normally would be.”
The S.C. House’s top ranking Democrat, attorney Todd Rutherford of Columbia, said districts should go even further if they’re racking up expenses due to viral challenges.
“I think without question we should take a look at going after TikTok and those people that are passing around hashtags that put people’s lives in jeopardy,” he said.
TikTok did not respond to a request for comment, but representatives from the social media giant were called in front of the U.S Senate Commerce Committee during an Oct. 26 hearing on what social media companies are doing to protect kids online.
Michael Beckerman, the head of U.S public policy for the company, said that the site does not “condone any harmful, dangerous, or criminal behavior” and that they will “aggressively look to remove such content and related hashtags as soon as possible.”
Overall, the damage has been minimal but serious enough that administrators have cut their own messages on social media warning of repercussions.
“What the social media challenge does not tell you is that these actions could result in infractions that are designated as larceny and severe vandalism,” Aiken County Superintendent King Laurence said Sept. 20 on the district’s Facebook page. Expulsion, admission into a diversionary program, restitution, and referrals to police could all follow.
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But teachers are the ones dealing with this on a day-to-day basis. Some do not think their districts are doing enough to keep them safe. During an Oct. 11 speech middle school science teacher Will Green gave after being recognized by Lexington-Richland Five district leaders for his work running the school’s greenhouse, he said that teachers needed “help now” and that they are “in the midst of a crisis.”
“The district needs to take a more proactive approach to these ridiculous challenges that do nothing more than threaten the safety of our students and staff at our schools,” he said.
District leaders didn’t respond to The Post and Courier’s questions about disciplinary referrals since the start of the year and whether any TikTok-related incidents have taken place.