In this Friday, Sept. 17, 2021 photo, a sign on a closed restroom is shown at Lawrence High School in Lawrence, Kan. Students across the country are videoing themselves stealing soap dispensers, microscopes and even turf off stadium football fields and posting their heists on TikTok in a phenomenon dubbed "devious licks.” Credit: Cuyler Dunn via AP

In a school environment already heavy with pandemic stress, Maine high school officials have struggled to respond to a surge of destruction and theft wrought by students following a viral social media challenge.

School had only been in session for a couple weeks before becoming the target of “devious licks,” a TikTok phenomenon that encourages students to steal or destroy school items in bathrooms and classrooms and post videos to the social media site.

“It took a ton of administrative time,” said South Portland High School principal Michele LaForge.

Reports of trashed bathrooms, theft and vandalism linked to “devious licks” have cropped up in numerous schools across the state. In South Portland, seven bathrooms were hit. Kids pulled soap and paper towel dispensers off the walls, throwing them in toilets or hiding them.

“It’s hard because it’s a pandemic,” LaForge said. Destroying bathroom hygienic products “means [students] can’t wash their hands.”

Seeing destruction in school settings was alarming, the South Portland principal said, because it’s typically a safe place for kids to be.

“Even students who hate school — they’ll still hate it but they’ll come anyway because their friends are here and they know someone is here for them,” LaForge said.

LaForge likes to keep close contact with her school community, typically writing email updates on the weekends. On September 15, she wrote an emergency message to faculty and parents, hoping to stifle the discord that had been going on in the high school week. She linked to   a national report on the phenomenon and asked for parents’ help.

“I told them I’m not blaming anybody, but it’s not good for us and not good for our school. Please help me stop this,” she said.

Asking that officials keep their identities confidential, some students came forward to help South Portland officials locate the students who posted videos of the antics.

Jeremy Ray, the superintendent of schools in Biddeford, Saco and Dayton, sought ways to send the message to students that the acts “won’t be tolerated.”

“If we find students that have destroyed school property, we’ll involve law enforcement when necessary and students will be responsible for any of the bills the damage incurred,” Ray said.

It was important that parents talk to their kids, Ray said, because paying to replace school appliances could be “a significant charge to a family.”

“Especially as we deal with COVID every single day, this is not an additional task that school officials or teachers or anyone needs to be dealing with,” Ray said.

Other schools across the state are dealing with similar situations as well. At Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln, Maine, a letter from the school principal and assistant principal sent to parents and students on September 22 called the vandalism unacceptable and disruptive, saying they take away from the learning environment. And at Bangor High School in Bangor, the administration made announcements, imploring students to stop and saying there will be consequences if they don’t.

Videos from across the country have shown students stealing typical school items, including phones, clocks and computers and smearing walls with soap, posting the evidence to the social media site TikTok. The site banned videos containing the hashtag #deviouslicks last week.

LaForge says the nationwide outburst doesn’t feel personal, but a tension that derives from students’ increasingly digital socialization.

“It feels very much like an effect of the pandemic, and the fact that some students have been parented by social media for the last year,” she said. “This is where some kids are looking to for agency and connection, and our job is to help them make the switch back to looking for agency and connection in the real world.”