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Vandals target school bathrooms

In the 1990s, when social media outlets were starting to become popular, I wrote a column predicting that just as with all major communication changes in our history, there will be some amazing benefits, but, beware, there will be a downside, too.

There have been many manifestations of the downside to social media proliferation, with one of the latest being the so-called TikTok “Devious Lick” challenge, which has resulted in the vandalism of hundreds of school lavatories across the nation by students who record themselves taking the challenge.

At first blush, you might pass this off as just another one of those passing fads that crop up from time to time, an example of youthful exuberance on steroids.

But there are more fundamental questions involved here, especially at a time when the country is in the grips of a worldwide pandemic, and sanitary precautions are a pathway to reduce the spread of the contagion.

First, let me explain what the “devious lick” is all about: Students record themselves on TikTok vandalizing school bathrooms, then encourage classmates to do the same, so not only are they committing a crime, but they are encouraging others to commit similar offenses.

Schools have been finding missing soap dispensers, damaged plumbing and fixtures, rolls of toilet paper randomly tossed around the facilities and some things that are too gross to mention in a family newspaper.

In Eastern Pennsylvania, there have been reports of damage in schools in the Blue Mountain, Pine Grove and Pottsville districts in Schuylkill County and in the Bethlehem Area School District in Northampton and Lehigh counties, where Superintendent Joseph Roy said officials will leave “no stone unturned” in tracking down the culprits and meting out the strongest punishment allowable, including criminal prosecution.

The situation was deemed serious enough for the Pennsylvania State Police to issue an advisory to school districts across the state to be aware of what’s going on.

School officials find themselves caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They obviously can’t put security cameras in washrooms. They also can’t overly restrict students from using the facilities, especially when the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus is so high, and students want to take extra sanitary measures.

My research shows that most of the damage is occurring among older students, those in middle and high schools, those who should know better. Remember, though, we are talking about an internet-spawned problem here, so that means younger children will be amply exposed to what is going on among their older friends, siblings and others.

Parents with school-age children might ask themselves how they might handle the situation, or if your kids are long gone from the nest, as mine are, how you might have handled something like this back in the day.

Let me note for the record that if school officials reported to my parents that I had damaged school property in this way, it is quite likely that I might not be here to write this column. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but I am sure you get my drift.

I was curious as to what, if anything, a renowned authority such as Psychology Today might have to say about something like the “devious lick” challenge.

In a recent article, Dr. J. Stuart Albion, the Thomas G. Sternberg Endowed Chair in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, suggests that we do more listening and less talking. “We can’t know what to say until we understand more about their understanding of and reaction to something in the first place,” Albion said.

He suggests opening the conversation with your child like this: “Have you heard of this thing called ‘Devious Lick’ on TikTok or the ‘Bathroom Vandalism Challenge’? What do you think of it?”

Then, Albion said, “Bite your tongue. You may well be rewarded by having a chance to hear their perspective, their point of view, or perhaps even what worries or concerns them about something like the vandalism challenge.”

Why do you think kids are doing stuff like this when they clearly know that it is wrong and that they can get into big trouble if they are caught? I doubt whether a majority of kids think about it in the following terms: This damage will need to be fixed. Until it is, many of my friends and other students will be inconvenienced. Not only that, but my parents and other taxpayers will wind up paying for this unnecessary vandalism possibly in the form of higher taxes. Worst of all, I am on the hook for serious disciplinary measures, possibly a visit by police.

A discussion with your child could be an important preemptive step. If, on the other hand, you’re confronted with a situation where your child is part of the vandalism and is facing disciplinary action at school, your normal reaction might be to take away phone/social media access or other punishments.

Albion said this reaction is understandable but rarely addresses the issues that are behind the behavior in the first place. “As hard as it can be when furious at or disappointed in our children, try listening first if you want to solve the problem in a durable way,” Albion suggested.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.