At a time when public health officials are touting the importance of proper hand hygiene amid the COVID-19 pandemic, soap dispensers at Kildonan-East Collegiate keep disappearing.
More than 10 students who attend the high school on Concordia Avenue in Winnipeg confirmed that thieves have continuously targeted their school bathrooms since classes resumed in September.
"The soap dispensers are always missing," said one Grade 12 student, who told the Free Press he is annoyed by the trend and stocks hand sanitizer in his backpack. "They put hand sanitizer in the washroom and it was gone the next day."
Another senior student, who also stopped to talk to a reporter outside the school over the lunch hour Friday, echoed those sentiments: "(The students involved) don’t care about our safety," she said. "It’s basically just to get more likes on their videos."
The thefts can be traced to a viral trend on TikTok that encourages students to steal, damage and vandalize school property and then post videos about their exploits to the social media platform with a hashtag.
Dubbed the "Devious Licks" challenge, the trend has gained traction across North America and has prompted some divisions to issue warnings and police to lay criminal charges against students who have partaken in it.
While soap is a popular target, Kildonan-East students said ceramic toilet tank lids, paper towel rolls, and a hand dryer have gone missing from various bathrooms in the building in recent weeks.
One student said the clock in her math class has disappeared and has overheard students talk about stealing other furniture, such as printers.
A Grade 10 student who claims he witnessed a peer stuffing a backpack with soap earlier this year said the trend is funny — until you’re the one sitting on the toilet, unable to flush because a handle is missing. "When it happens to you, it sucks," he said, adding he’s watched many entertaining #licks videos on TikTok.
The school has yet to issue a notice to students or families about the incidents. Principal Darwin MacFarlane did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the River East Transcona School Division, however, indicated the trend has not been an issue in its schools and declined to provide much detail.
"We did have some soap dispensers go missing and they have or will be replaced as soon as possible," wrote Amanda Gaudes, senior communications officer at the division, in an email, adding hand sanitizer can be found throughout division schools.
Radean Carter, spokeswoman for Manitoba's largest division in central Winnipeg, declined to comment on the trend, saying doing so would be irresponsible because it would promote the trend in the media.
Meantime, the local chapter of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents school custodians across the province, indicated it has heard from members that soap theft is an issue in Sunrise School Division.
The trend is popular because it's a way for defiant teenagers — a group that has been severely affected by social isolation throughout the pandemic — to attract attention. It allows them to garner likes and build up a reputation, said Matthew Flisfeder, a social media theorist and associate professor of rhetoric and communications at the University of Winnipeg.
"Too often, we say that ‘our media, our social media, our platforms are creating the problem,’ but I don’t think that (TikTok) is creating the problem. I think that, if anything, social media platforms are giving us access to understanding dimensions of our culture that are being amplified online," said Flisfeder, author of Algorithmic Desire.
Flisfeder said it’s important to contextualize the behaviour being captured via the trend by acknowledging "these very destabilizing and depressing times in which we’re living." Citing the above, he said adults should be understanding of students’ need to act out and lash out right now.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.