Thunder Mountain High School on April 18.  Earlier this fall, vandalism including stolen soap dispensers and toilets clogged with foreign objects such as paper towel rolls were a problem at schools nationwide and in Juneau. But, principals say the local situation is improving. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)

After brief surge, vandalism subsiding at local high schools

Principals say internet trends, stress likely behind incidents.

As students return to in-person learning, schools across the country have reported increasing on-campus vandalism, and Juneau’s schools are no exception. But, local school officials say that the situation is improving as the year progresses.

Stolen soap dispensers, toilets clogged with foreign objects such as paper towel rolls and messes in the cafeteria are among the issues school officials have seen at local high schools this year.

Further afield, Anchorage’s NBC affiliate KTUU reported at least 80 incidents across the Anchorage School District, including broken toilet seats, tiles ripped off the walls, and broken stall doors.

Kelly Stewart, assistant principal at Thunder Mountain High School, said that most incidents happened in September.

“For a few weeks we were seeing it. We had soap dispensers being taken and removed completely,” she said in a Thursday morning phone interview.

Across town at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, principal Paula Casperson said that similar incidents have occurred on campus.

“What we’ve been seeing is a series of behaviors that aren’t really typical of our high school experience,” Casperson said Thursday afternoon.

She said most of the episodes probably don’t seem “catastrophic” to students. But, the situations produce distractions for students and adults.

[Huskies ready for a home playoff game]

Internet inspired

Stewart said the vandalism may have been inspired by a TikTok video series called “devious licks.”

“We learned that there’s a monthly theme going on and each month there will be a new theme and September’s theme was destroying school property,” Stewart said.

According to CNN, TikTok removed many of the videos from its platform last month.

Stewart said some vandalism took place across all areas of the school. But, the damage occured primarily in the boy’s bathrooms.

“It was exhausting. I was just like are you kidding me? We have to close a bathroom now,” she said.

Although a dollar amount of the damage was not immediately available, Stewart said that school officials recovered eight large bags of soap used in wall-mounted dispensers from an off-campus location.

[Bartlett names interim CEO]

Growing pains

Both principals said they think the vandalism is at least partly attributable to the stress created by returning to in-person school after the long COVID-19 induced pause on in-person learning and the strange circumstances in place when some students started returning to school buildings last winter.

“If you take a 10,000-foot view, we all had lack of structure and a lot of unknown. Now, we are back to structure and routine and learning and it’s stressful for everyone,” Casperson said. “I think some of the behaviors we are seeing are manifestations of stress.”

Stewart agreed.

“We are seeing it’s a hard adjustment for them to come back to routines and social norms,” Stewart said.

Both agreed that the majority of the students involved did not have previous discipline issues.

Stewart attributed some of the issues to immaturity.

“The majority of the students were freshmen and they missed all of the eighth grade and they didn’t get the last year to prepare for high school,” Stewart said.

Casperson said peer pressure likely plays a role.

“Really good kids can make poor choices in a group,” she said.

Fighting back

Last Friday, Casperson sent out a mass voicemail message to parents asking for help curbing the behaviors.

“I just asked parents to check in with their kids and share their expectations,” she said. “It’s really important that we work together for the common goal of education.”

The approach seems to be working.

“We’ve seen tons of improvement since. We have seen very positive behavior this week, in the lunchroom, in the caretaking of the environment and I believe that came from powerful personal conversations outside of school,” Casperson said.

At TMHS, Stewart said the staff is using professional development time to help support students in ninth and 10th grade who have not had prior high school experience and that teachers spoke to their advisory students about the consequences of vandalism.

Both Casperson and Stewart sounded optimistic for the rest of the school year.

“We are so excited to be open for in-person learning and all day everyday, which is a huge shift. We want to be open every day and return to a more normal high school experience,” Casperson said.

Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at dana.zigmund@juneauempire.com or 907-308-4891.

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