Last Thursday, for a few gruesome hours, Yik Yak swept through Staples High School.
For those who haven’t heard of it — and count yourselves lucky — Yik Yak is an app that allows anyone to post short messages.
Which makes it fertile ground for gross, moronic comments about classmates, teachers and administrators.
Most of Thursday’s posts were astonishingly misogynistic. Others targeted blacks, Hispanics, Jews and gays.
Yik Yak offered a very disturbing look into the dark underbelly of the adolescent world. It’s a view adults seldom see.
Stuff that in the past appeared only on bathroom walls now infests cyberspace. Yet unlike graffiti, Yik Yak’s posts replicate virally. And unlike graffiti, they can’t be erased.
Several students — stunned at what they read about themselves — left class crying. Girls learned they are considered sluts, or obese pigs. Boys were threatened with violence because they are perceived to be gay. Principal John Dodig — who for 10 years has tried to create a safe, welcoming environment for all — was mocked too.
Dodig moved quickly, asking the IT staff to block the site. Soon, superintendent of schools Elliott Landon got Yik Yak to erect a “geo-fence” around it, blocking access in school. (Officials in other Fairfield County towns — and the city of Chicago — have done the same.)
By Friday morning, Yik Yak was gone. The damage lived on though, in the form of students who were mortified to learn what others thought of them. Some did not want to come to school. Tears, humiliation, even terror continued over the weekend for some.
But this story is not about the hateful, incendiary comments some Stapleites — how many is unclear — posted about their classmates, teachers and administrators.
It’s about what happened afterward.
Dodig left school Thursday “disappointed and somewhat depressed.” His decade of work — trying to build a climate of inclusiveness and kindness, a school free of harassment for any reason — seemed to have crumbled.
On Friday he was scheduled for a meeting elsewhere. But he wanted to be visible. So between every class period, he stood in the halls. At lunch, he was near the cafeteria.
All day long, students approached him. Singly or in small groups, they spoke.
“I’m sorry we disappointed you.” “This isn’t who we are.” “You must feel terrible.” “This is an awesome school.” “I apologize on behalf of my classmates.”
Over and over and over again, Staples students did the right thing.
Driving home that afternoon, Dodig says, “I felt so much better. To see so many of these kids with the courage and strength of character to say this to their principal — it was very encouraging and reaffirming.”
Dodig’s mission as Staples principal is to try to make all 1,900 students feel known and loved, by at least one adult. He’s tried to provide a safe, warm and encouraging space for every single boy or girl who comes through the doors every morning.
The vile posts on Yik Yak last Thursday devastated him. The counter-response on Friday made him realize the positive effect he’s had on many.
Yet more work remains to be done. Dodig has encouraged his staff to continue to try to end harassment and bullying, whenever and wherever it occurs. He hopes parents, clergy and other adults in Westport will continue to do the same.
He knows it’s not easy.
And he knows that Yik Yak is not the end of the battle.
“There will always be some technology available that kids misuse,” Dodig says.
Hopefully, there will also be many more kids who — as they did last Friday — know good from evil, and right from wrong. And are not afraid to do the right thing.
(Staples senior Will Haskell — president of Staples Players — has written a brutally honest and spectacularly insightful piece, for New York Magazine. It was published earlier this afternoon on their website. Click here for an insider’s account of the havoc Yik Yak wrought.)