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July 08, 2024

Great Valley Middle School students created fictitious TikTok accounts to impersonate, harass teachers

Some of the videos reportedly contained racist memes and jokes about sexual hookups between educators. Several students were suspended, but Superintendent Daniel Goffredo says the district's ability to discipline them is limited.

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Students at Great Valley Middle School in Malvern created 22 TikTok accounts that impersonated their teachers and made videos containing 'pedophilia innuendo, racist memes, homophobia and made-up sexual hookups among teachers,' a New York Times story reports.

Students at Great Valley Middle School in Malvern created 22 TikTok accounts that impersonated their teachers and posted inappropriate content, Great Valley School District officials said.

About one-quarter of the school's faculty were targeted by fake accounts that posted "pedophilia innuendo, racist memes, homophobia and made-up sexual hookups among teachers," according to a New York Times article that broke the story Saturday. The fake accounts are the first "known group TikTok attack of its kind by middle schoolers on their teachers in the United States," the newspaper reported.

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Some of the fake TikTok accounts used staff members' names as their handles. Students also made memes that ranged from "benign" to "sexualized" by using images from the school's website or family photos the teachers posted online or in their classrooms, the New York Times reported. 

Superintendent Daniel Goffredo addressed the fake accounts in a statement posted to the district website.

"You may be aware that Great Valley Middle School students were recently highlighted in The New York Times because of their social media behavior during the 2023-2024 school year," Goffredo said. "These students created fictitious TikTok profiles that impersonated our Great Valley Middle School staff members. ... I reiterate my disappointment and sadness that our students' behavior has caused such duress for our staff. Seeing GVSD in such a prominent place in the news for behavior like this is also disheartening."

During the school year, Great Valley officials took steps to address the TikTok attack. Principal Edward Souders sent emails to parents in March about the situation. The school also held an eighth-grade assembly on responsible technology use, and several students were "briefly" suspended, according to the New York Times. School officials met one-on-one with the impacted teachers and removed their photos from the online directory, 6ABC reported. Accounts that were flagged on TikTok as impersonating were deleted when ID information could not be validated.

But there were limits to legal action that could be taken against the students involved, Goffredo's statement said.

"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 said. "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."

Two female students posted an "apology" video last month through a TikTok handle that used the name of a seventh-grade teacher, according to the New York Times. They claimed in the video that they planned to post new videos, but would make them private at the beginning of the school year, "'cause then they can't do anything." 

On Friday, the students deleted the apology video and removed the teacher's name from their account after a reporter asked the district to notify parents about the impending publication of the New York Times story. The students also added a disclaimer that they'd no longer be impersonating their teachers.

Goffredo said administrators are working this summer to strengthen the focus on digital citizenship in the school's curriculum and to reestablish a "culture of trust and caring" in the school because the fake TikTok accounts had "a profound impact" on staff. 

"As we plan for the next school year, I implore you also to use the summer to have conversations with your children about the responsible use of technology, especially social media," Goffredo's statement said. "What seemingly feels like a joke has deep and long-lasting impacts, not just for the targeted person but for the students themselves. Our best defense is a collaborative one. I have always valued your partnership and will continue to do so as we move ahead."

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