Social Media Abuse of School Staff by Pupils

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 13 December 2021
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education; Social Media; TikTok; Online Bullying and Harassment

Recent news reports have revealed that schools across Northern Ireland have been targeted by bogus TikTok accounts in which pupils rate their teachers. Incidents have occurred where fake TikTok accounts for local schools were set up and then images posted of school staff with inappropriate comments. The PSNI have stressed that the videos had caused "real distress" to those targeted and they warned that some of the content was abusive and may constitute a crime under misuse of telecommunications or harassment.

Sadly this is not a new type of problem and schools have had to address social media misuse issues for many years. What has changed now is that the current pupil cohort is significantly more “tech savvy” than previous generations and the opportunity to create and manipulate images is offered by platforms like TikTok.  The impact therefore of pupils posting inappropriate material about school staff is all the greater and the harm and hurt done potentially more profound.

The NASUWT have said that a significant number of schools in Northern Ireland have been affected by this practice with some teachers off sick as a result. The union reports that the trend began after the Halloween school break before gaining momentum in recent days. They point out that TikTok, is currently the most popular app amongst 4–15-year-olds, with children spending, on average, 75 minutes per day on the social media platform. The app is also the host of a new and alarming online trend, “School Slander”, which provides the facility for young people to create these fake school accounts and post images of teachers alongside defamatory and malicious allegations using videos that are typically under a minute in length.
NASUWT | Calling time on social media abuse of teachers

On November 11th last The Guardian’s Education editor Richard Adams highlighted the problem in England writing that teachers are being targeted by abusive and humiliating TikTok accounts set up by students, prompting a warning from schools that parents may face police action over offending posts. ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton is quoted as saying that his union had received more than 50 complaints about TikTok accounts, but said it was likely to be a much larger problem that could lead to pupils being excluded from school. ASCL reports that schools have asked TikTok to remove them but TikTok has often failed to act despite these posts clearly breaching the platform’s community guidelines.
Parents told they may face police action as teachers targeted on TikTok | Schools | The Guardian

TikTok’s response is that their community guidelines make clear that they do not allow accounts that impersonate people in a deceptive manner, nor do they tolerate content that contains bullying or harassment, statements targeting an individual, or hateful speech or behaviour. They remove any content that violates these guidelines."

The Department of Education in Northern Ireland have also responded by highlighting their new initiative, the Safer Schools App. This Safer Schools NI app is customised for each school. It allows teachers and staff to find their own school news feed with the essential updates and information.

Minister Michelle McIlveen commented that;

“The digital world can be a great place to chat with friends, family, play games and learn. However, there are also risks and this app is designed to provide protection from potential harm. I want young people to learn how to protect themselves from those risks and know what to do if something goes wrong online....

And for staff ...  The app supplements the safeguarding and child protection support already provided to schools by giving up-to-date advice and support on topical issues from safeguarding experts."

Jim Gamble, founding CEO of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) Centre, has welcomed the release of the app saying that balancing the opportunities and safeguarding challenges in the digital environment is never easy and that this app takes account of best practice for teaching online safety in schools, the developing Online Harms Bill and the Online Safety Strategy for Northern Ireland. 
McIlveen launches new Safer Schools NI app | Department of Education (

The NAS/UWT have clear advice for schools and staff on the steps to take if such a problem arises including; reviewing behaviour policies to allow the school to be responsive to new developments and carry out appropriate risk assessments; engaging with parents to enlist their full support in dealing robustly with this problem, recognising that this behaviour can occur outside school;  ensuring that any member of staff affected by online abuse like this does not have to have direct contact with the pupils concerned in school;  blocking access to social media sites on school networks and carefully recording the incidents and if possible capturing evidence of the problem;
NASUWT | Social Media and Online Abuse of Teachers

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph senior PSNI officers have stressed that they are working closely with local schools, the Department of Education and the Education Authority to investigate these incidents, and they are appealing to anyone who is aware of these videos or who has been impacted by them to contact them highlighting that some of the content involved is both abusive, and could potentially constitute a crime under the Misuse of Telecommunications Act or Harassment.
More than 80 reports of false school TikTok accounts reported since October, reveals PSNI -

As employers schools have of course a duty of care to safeguard the health and wellbeing of staff and the measures listed above are probably already in place in most schools. The challenge  for schools though, is to keep updating their policies and procedures to ensure that they are able to both make a suitable disciplinary response, adequately educate pupils and properly support and look after staff. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of this is the fact that the young people involved did not seem to see these actions as wrong. There is definitely a role for schools in trying to address that aspect of the problem hopefully with the support of parents.

This article is correct at 13/12/2021

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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