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Pennsylvania school district says students impersonated teachers with fake TikTok accounts

Group of Chester County students accused of impersonating nearly 2 dozen teachers on TikTok
Group of Chester County students accused of impersonating nearly 2 dozen teachers on TikTok 02:16

CHESTER COUNTY, Pa. (CBS) -- A school district in Chester County, Pennsylvania, says middle school students were responsible for creating nearly two dozen TikTok accounts that impersonated teachers earlier this year.

A spokesperson for the Great Valley School District said officials first learned about the 22 fake TikTok accounts at the end of February, but still aren't sure when they were first created or how many students were involved. Superintendent Daniel Goffredo said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon that the accounts have continued to pop up this summer.

"Unfortunately, we do know that accounts have continued to be created throughout the summer months. It's disheartening, it's embarrassing, it's disappointing that our students continue with some of this conduct," Goffredo said. 

In a Great Valley School District board meeting on the night of March 18, Nikki Salvatico, president of the Great Valley Education Association addressed the school board about the TikTok videos. 

"Over the past few weeks, 22 of our teachers and staff at Great Valley Middle School have been victimized where fake social media accounts were created," Salvatico said. "The nature of these accounts include pornographic, racist, homophobic and cruel pictures and text depicting the teachers, their families, including their children," Salvatico said. 

Salvatico said the misconduct had disrupted the safe, educational environment the teachers had created. 

"Every time an iPad is opened in the classroom, our teachers fear that pictures or videos may be taken and will be shared on social media platforms as a cruel meme," Salvatico said.

She added that as educators they will continue to teach about digital citizenship, but they couldn't do this alone. 

Superintendent of Great Valley School District gives update on fake TikTok account investigation 15:10

"As GVA President, I'm imploring all stakeholders to take action. We need the message that this type of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," Salvatico said. "We want to support parents to educate their children about what it means to maintain a responsible and respectful social media presence. We want the district office, administration and the school board to work collectively with us to execute these tasks."

According to a New York Times report published on July 6, many of the videos posted on the accounts propagated rumors about staff members and included racist and homophobic memes and innuendos.

"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," Superintendent Daniel Goffredo said in a statement.

Goffredo did not confirm what the TikTok videos stated about the teachers, instead describing them as "inappropriate TikTok accounts."

The superintendent, who has worked with the district since 2009, expressed his frustration about the limitations on what the district can do since most of the student's online conduct was performed outside of school.

"Since much of the conduct occurred outside of the school day and on personal devices, there are limitations to what schools can do," Goffredo said. 

The district said after learning about the inappropriate TikTok accounts, administrators worked with local law enforcement to determine what legal action could be taken against those responsible.

"The challenge presented that these accounts were created outside of the school and may have represented students' right to free speech. At the school level, action was taken, as was appropriate and permissible, to address known individuals who created the fictitious accounts," GVSD said.

Rob D'Ovidio, an associate professor at Drexel University who researches high-tech crime, said the fictitious TikTok accounts impersonating middle school teachers in Chester County could lead to criminal charges.

"This type of behavior does fall under Pennsylvania's harassment statute. I think that when you look at the nuances and the various sections of that statute, there's application here," D'Ovidio said.

While it may be easy to make a fake online account, it doesn't mean someone is anonymous. D'Ovidio said authorities can track down the people behind social media accounts meant to harass or intimidate.

Tech expert says Pennsylvania students impersonating teachers on TikTok could face criminal charges 03:51

Back in March, the district said it also held an assembly for 8th-grade students and families "to address the responsible use of social media."

The district told CBS News Philadelphia that it cannot comment on the specific disciplinary actions taken against any of its students.

"We take this very seriously," said Goffredo. "As a district, one of our goals is to create warm and inclusive spaces for everyone. That certainly includes our teachers. While we wish we could do more to hold students accountable, we are legally limited in what action we can take when students communicate off campus during non-school hours on personal devices."

Goffredo said while they can't comment on the number of students involved in the misconduct, they said the majority of the students involved were in eighth grade and there have been repeat offenders.

"We know in some situations where we had one student who's created multiple accounts," he said.

The district added that all teacher photos were removed from the online directory, and teachers impacted by the videos were offered counseling and "resources to help protect themselves online."

During the press conference, Goffredo was asked what his message to the teachers was at this time. He replied: 

"It's so disheartening and I want to extend my sincere concern for our staff and know that this has truly hurt them," Goffredo said. "I want to assure our staff that we have your back. We're going to continue to support you, we will hold students accountable, we're doing a complete review of our policies." 

An employee with TikTok's communications department told CBS News Philadelphia when an account is reported to them, TikTok's U.S. Data Security looks into the case to confirm a person's identity and determine if the information should be deleted under TikTok's policies. 

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