Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A school district in Pa. says students made fake TikTok accounts to target teachers

A Pennsylvania school district is grappling with the fallout caused after middle school students created fake TikTok accounts to impersonate their teachers and post lewd and offensive messages.
Getty Images
A Pennsylvania school district is grappling with the fallout caused after middle school students created fake TikTok accounts to impersonate their teachers and post lewd and offensive messages.

A school district in Pennsylvania is dealing with the fallout after a number of middle school students created at least 22 fake TikTok accounts that impersonated their teachers — using the teachers’ own photos in some cases — and apparently made some posts using racist, homophobic and sexually explicit language.

The incidents were detailed in a recent report in the New York Times, which called it the “first known group TikTok attack of its kind by middle schoolers on their teachers in the United States."

Daniel Goffredo, superintendent of the Great Valley School District in Malvern, just outside Philadelphia, said in a statement that it “saddens us to know that the students to whom these teachers dedicate their time and talents every day would misuse technology in a way that causes teachers undeserved stress and emotional hardship.”

Students took real images of the teachers from the school’s website and their personal social media accounts and wrote sometimes lewd messages on top, the newspaper reported. In one case, a fake account for a Spanish teacher used a photo she’d taken with her husband and children at the beach. Messages written in Spanish over the image read: “Do you like to touch kids?” and “Answer: Sí.” Students viewed the fake accounts on campus during the school day.

Around 20 teachers, roughly a quarter of the school’s entire faculty, were victims of the online trolling, the New York Times reported, adding that such attacks typically do not occur on such a large scale but rather target one teacher or administrator at a time.

The school district said it took “swift action” to investigate the accounts and also held an assembly for 8th-graders to “address the responsible use of social media.” Several students have been suspended over the fake TikTok accounts, 6ABC reported.

Goffredo said the administration also met individually with the affected teachers and removed their photos from the district’s website.

A TikTok spokesperson told NPR that the company was made aware of multiple fake accounts. When TikTok looked into the matter, some of the accounts were no longer available, and the company removed other accounts for violating its policies, which prohibit a user from impersonating others without disclosing that it is a parody or fan account.

A growing debate over social media and schools

The fake accounts appear to have caught the attention of some educators as early as February, according to the Times. By March, Nikki Salvatico, president of the Great Valley Education Association, said at a school board meeting that the accounts included “pornographic,” “racist” and “homophobic” content.

“I ask all of you to consider the emotions, trauma and suffering … incurred by our teachers,” Salvatico said. “Every time an iPad is opened in a classroom, our teachers fear that pictures or videos may be taken and will be shared on social media platforms as a cruel meme.”

The episode highlights the growing challenges posed by the influences of technology and social media on young people — and the often limited abilities of school administrators to deal with bad behavior.

Goffredo, the Great Valley School District superintendent, said the phony accounts were created outside of the middle school and in some cases may be covered by the students’ free speech rights.

“While it may be easy to react in a way that suggests that students should have been more heavily disciplined in school, some, but not all, of their behavior is protected by the right of free speech and expression,” Goffredo wrote in a recent note to the school community.

“After consulting with our legal counsel, and based on each unique posting, the district enacted whatever discipline it could, communicated with families, and implemented measures in an effort to prevent future behavior like this,” he added.

In 2021, the Supreme Court ruled that public school administrators can punish student speech that occurs outside the school or online if it disrupts classroom study. That case involved a cheerleader who created an expletive-laden social media post but didn’t target any one person or name her school.

A Great Valley School District policy on student expression says the administration respects the right of students to express themselves but that "the exercise of that right must be limited by the District's responsibility to maintain a safe and orderly school environment and to protect the rights of all members of the school community."

There have been recent efforts across the U.S. to ban cell phones from schools outright. The Los Angeles Unified School District board voted recently to ban students from using cell phones and social media during school hours beginning in January, LAist reported.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]