Yik Yak: The Bad, The Ugly — And The Good

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.

Yik YakUnlike Twitter though, users are anonymous. And messages can be viewed only in a 1.5-mile radius. So each Yik Yak group is limited to a precise area — say, a school.

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.

One of the milder posts on Yik Yak. (Not from the Staples version.)

One of the milder posts on Yik Yak. (Not from the Staples version.)

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.)

Yik Yak disableBy 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.

anti-bullyingDodig 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.”

John Dodig is a "superfan" of Staples students.

John Dodig is a “superfan” of Staples students.

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.)  

46 responses to “Yik Yak: The Bad, The Ugly — And The Good

  1. Bobbie Herman

    How can people be so cruel to each other? Is this what has become of our civilization?

  2. Kudos to Jon Dodig for caring so much for our kids, and making sure they know it!

  3. Clare Stickley

    My heart hurts for the Staples students and staff. With a 7th, 5th, and 2nd grade trio, I have long admired what I hear about our high school from our sitters who are Staples students. They are quite proud of their school. Sadly, one negative remark leaves a wound and social media adds unbearable salt. I wish healing and positive vibes to infect Staples with an emidemic pace. And may the magic and resiliency of Principal Dodig inspire courage and growing possibilities. A little kindness goes a very long way…

  4. Stephanie Bass

    how totally mean spirited…and I think that if you’re a shit at 16, you’ll always be a shit

    • Stephanie, I disagree. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had former soccer players call — years (even decades!) later — and apologize for how they acted when they were younger. The number of 16-year-old “shits” who turn out to be great, productive, hard-working, loving adults, doing great things as parents while contributing to their community and world, is far higher than the number of wonderful 16-year-olds who turn out to be dirtbags.

      I am a firm believer that many Westport teenagers turn out to be really good people. And I also believe it is, in part, because of the community. As screwed-up as this town seems at times, it provides many (not all, for sure) of our young people with the tools they need to be great adults.

  5. I just received this information from Christ & Holy Trinity Church. The timing is very appropriate:

    Next Sunday, May 4 (5-8 p.m.), Christ & Holy Trinity Church, 75 Church Lane, Westport, invites parents and children to attend our special presentation “Protecting Your Child on Social Media.” Professional speaker Robert Hackenson has spoken at schools and organizations across the country teaching kids and parents how to navigate all of the newest social media applications.

    “Sometimes parents can feel overmatched by all the new technology. Often children don’t understand the impact of their posts. We wanted help to spark a dialogue between parents and their children about cyber bullying,” said Rector Whitney Edwards.

    To sign up please visit http://www.chtwestport.org/social-media or call the church office 203.227.0827. Suggested donation $15 per family

  6. How sad that all the bullying education and programs that mentor respect and acceptance can’t turn this kind of hate around before it becomes an inferno of dispair. Mr. Dodig’s visual presence throughout the school day (every day – not just last Friday) says a lot about him. He greets students. He engages them. I’m so glad he didn’t run from responsibility and that many came to him the day after with humility and kindness. There have always been random, viscious comments written inside a book cover, whispered in a hall, circulated in a note that have collapsed into tears students, teachers and administrators. The Internet exacerbates the insanity. I have, for what seems an internity, felt we have missed two essential areas in education. One is attention to listening skills and the other is development of personal ethics. These are transformational skills that shape productive, responsible, kind parents, business professionals, educators, service people – all citizens. Perhaps the time has come. My heart goes out to those who have been brutalized but also to those who have missed something significant in their development. The fight goes on. One person at a time, change is possible.

  7. Sandy Soennichsen

    The police/FBI, whoever, should be on these sites arresting the people who design them for promoting bullying or some other kind of infraction. And the sites that put these apps on and make them available should also be stopped. And any IT unit that sees one of these apps should immediately block them. Furthermore, if you can find the people that post on these sites, they too should be arrested or placed under observation, and if students, expelled from school for a certain time. It’s always easy to be a bully when no one is around to confront you, that is more the sign of a coward.

    • Virtually every site on the internet that allows for anonymous posting of comments invites this sort of rude, anti-social behavior, from all age groups, and particularly from political extremists. Dan can attest to that and wisely put an end to anonymous comments on this site awhile ago. And the site has been the better for it.

  8. I don’t know Dodig as he became principal after I graduated in 04, but there are still people there that really do care. Dean (now vice principal I belive) Farnen suspended me 3 different times and he is one of the only teachers that I still keep in touch with. These kids need a serious ass whooping, but sadly the fact is that the shit that happened at Staples when I was there has only progressed with technology. They are still spoiled little rich kids who think they are immune to anything outside the walls of Staples. I hope Farnen finds one of these bullies and makes an example of them.

  9. David Webster

    I know you were looking for a silver lining here but i’m a little less sanguine about what is happening as an outcome. I’m glad the school moved quickly to block the app. And I’m glad that non-perpetrating students felt the need to apologize for their classmates behavior. But there is a more systemic problem at work and not nearly enough is being done at a community level to deal with it. A slightly less graphic, but equally toxic set of incidents have been occurring this year in our middle schools, involving another app, ask.fm. Again, after things got really ugly the school (finally) moved to warn parents about the app and discourage its use. But not nearly enough is being done to deal with root causes.

    Apps will come and go, as you say. And playing whack-a-mole with them is not the answer. The kids who have been involved here (not just the ones posting, but also those up-voting and rubber-necking) have a serious empathy deficit. And while I’d say they need to get that kind of life-lesson from their parents, clearly they aren’t. So in the best sense of “in loco parentis”, I’d really like to see our schools step up and have a real conversation about why/how our kids think it’s ok to treat each other this way. At both the High School and Middle School level, before something really awful happens.

  10. Byron Miller

    This saddened and angered me but I fear that Staples students are probably not much different from any other HS students in America today. This sort of cowardly meanness seems more pervasive these days and Yak Yak opens the door way too widely for those who lack the maturity and judgement to avoid the temptation to do harm.

  11. Stephanie Bass

    Kids reflect what they see at home. This is the most important inflence on their development. The schools and the community can only do so much. Mean parents make mean kids. Of course 16 year olds try out different personas along the way, but a lot of the values they hear at home determine the final outcome of their adult personas.
    And vis-a-vis my 16 year olds remark, didn’t the Catholic church say something about give me a kid until he’s 7?

    • I guess that’s what happens when your town is flooded with new york hedgefund pricks. you get new york hedgefund kids that think it’s ok to tell the entire school that someone likes to “eat wheelchair pussy”

  12. Stephanie Bass

    It is unfair to condemn an entire group of people. Your rant sounds exactly like the samples of the kids on the site we are discussing. Does the word “irony” ring a bell? Duh…

  13. Bart Shuldman

    There is no doubt this website is being set up with horrible intentions. Already many communities and schools have put a stop on access. But we must do more.

    Many times the ‘market’ can drive companies to change their ways. Once exposed to what they are, consumers, the church and schools can have a meaningful impact to the success or lack of success a business like this will have.

    So first we have to expose who they are. Yik Yak cannot survive without capital. Just about a week ago they had to raise money to help fund their business. I strongly suggest our schools write letters to the funding partners. I also suggest our schools contact other communities to get more letters into the hands of the investors. Let them know how bad this is and the work has just begun to stop the anonymous writing.

    3 firms led the capital raise, one is in NYC. Their name is Vaiza Capital. Exposing their firm and those that work there can help change their minds about the Yik Yak business model.

    Another firm is DCM. One of their portfolio companies is Jawbone. I suggest schools and the church write both Jawbone and this firm asking them to stop the business model of Yik Yak of allowing anonymous postings.

    As for a consumer I suggest stop buying any Jawbone products. Let them know we don’t appreciate the people that are supporting their business and until it stops their product sales will be effected.

    If enough ‘market’ pressure is put on the firms supporting this horrible company and all around them, the business model will be changed.

    Yik Yak is an under capitalized company that can feel the ‘heat’ if enough people and organizations come down on them. In addition if enough pressure is put on the firms who support them, and their portfolio companies then change will happen.

  14. Dale Nordling

    What is to prevent students from finding a 1.5 miles radius site, outside the school grounds, in which to use YikYak and continue this verbal/written abuse? Where do they hang out after school?

    Banning YikYak on school grounds is similar to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” It hides the immediate visible signs but doesn’t really resolve the underlying larger issue.

  15. One point not raised in these comments, but I think should be, is the well-written and articulate piece written by Will Haskell, to which Dan refers in his article. It is tremendous that a student is willing and able to describe (rather eloquently, in fact) the angst that his fellow students are dealing with in the technology-driven environment.

    Kudos to John on his forthright manner in addressing the issue, and Dan in raising our public awareness. These are some of the many individuals who make Staples the great high school that it is.

    • Yes, Will. Will Haskell’s piece is honest and clear. I meant to mention that in my response. I hope many read it and pass it on to those who can make a difference.

  16. I am a parent of 2 daughters in the Westport school system. Although neither of my children were named on this site (as far as we are aware of!!), my 9th grader, husband and I were all extremely upset for those children who were mentioned.

    As a parent, I was happy to see the rapid parent email and I.T. response the school system took to block the site. I am somewhat relieved to hear about all of the positive kids who have stepped forward to voice their opposition to the contents of this site. However, I do agree with you Dan that more remains to be done to end harassment and bullying here in Westport (which by the way were going on long before Yik Yak came into the public view).

    As a community member, I urge other parents to come forward if your child has been a victim of these horrific comments. My daughter showed me many of the postings on that site and, in my opinion, they are not only cruel but some are also criminal. Those individuals that posted negative comments about a child’s religion and skin color could (I would guess) and should be prosecuted for committing a hate crime (and at the very least be suspended or expelled). Although the comments are anonymous, if a complaint were to be filed (to the Westport PD) I would think that the IP address could possibly be tracked down and the author of the comments be punished.

    Hateful words have consequences. The bullies on this site should feel the consequences of their actions. We only need to look at the recent racist rants of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling who thought he was speaking in anonymity. Do we want to raise a community of closeted racists? If we do nothing here, by default we are potentially contributing to exactly that.

    Finally, as a taxpayer, I wonder why a program such as Kool to be Kind was just taken out of our school system. Children need more, not less of an integrated, holistic, emotional education. I believe that this education needs to become a part of the elementary, middle and high schools and be taught by community mental health professionals specifically trained in the area of empathy training and anti bullying. After all, many of us hand picked Westport as an ideal environment to raise our kids. It’s now our responsibility to act together to keep it that way.

  17. Julie ogrady

    Sadly, this is not new news. In the early 70’s at Coleytown Junior High, kids used to make ‘slam books’ that were basically a spiral binder with the names of everyone in a particular class on the top of each page. The book was passed around and people could anonymously write what every they wanted about anyone. It was atrocious then as it is now– just new technology. Very sad to hear we have not learned how cruel and dangerous these types of things can be….

  18. We are lucky to have John Dodig. His humanity really shines. I wonder if empathy can be learned from this situation. It never feels good to be rejected, which is essentially what happens with bullying.

  19. Mary Ann Neilson

    Although the last my children left Staples 10 years ago, then as now, parents must know we live in an adult world that prizes the fastest snarky comment, tweet,or post. Have we laughed at late night comedians, name calling calling cable talking heads, Howard Stern, or Bill Maher?
    Perhaps, just perhaps, kids want to do ‘one better’ that which they see as acceptable smart behavior.

  20. Debbie Zager

    So sad that insecure self loathing people make themselves feel better by tearing apart people around them. They are so brave in their anonymity – I doubt any of them would say the same thing to the recipients face to face. Do they hurt so much inside they need to inflict pain on other people? It is sick and wrong. Really disheartening…

  21. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    Teaching problem solving requires tremendous problem solving.
    That’s the struggle. If it was easy, then everybody would do it.

  22. Reflecting upon this incident all weekend, I have come to realize that all of the work we have done over the last many years to create and maintain a calm, safe, accepting environment in school is just that…….a school environment. We may have changed a few beliefs in some who came to us as freshmen and left as seniors. Some may have come here hating certain groups of people and learned that they were wrong. Many never had a problem with hate for others. They simply enjoyed our environment. Some, however, have just learned that it is politically incorrect to spout hateful comments at various groups of students because it is absolutely not tolerated by adults in this building and there is a terrible price to pay when caught. If we were to back off our daily commitment to maintaining and expanding the positive environment we have, it would take only a year to completely fall apart and we would hear in our halls and classrooms the same hateful, hurtful comments that were written on Yik Yak. We have to stay the course and continue to find ways to get better.

    • Bart Shuldman

      John–thanks for all you do and stay the course. With education and parental involvement we can make a difference.

      I would also suggest that more can be done with schools potentially taking the lead. Yik Yak can only survive by investments by venture capital firms. If they realize there is no way to make money, that schools and parents and churches will work not to support a website like that, then they will walk away from investing in websites that base their strategy on anonymous postings.

      Just look to what happened with the LA Clippers. With not only public outcry, but sponsors walking away from the Clippers, the owner had to go. No doubt.

      If companies advertising on a website like Yik Yak are not supported, products not purchased, then Yik Yak cannot make money. if they don’t make money, then veniture firms know to walk away. Then Yik Yak has to change its model or they fail.

      We know many schools around the country are banning Yik Yak. If school leaders around the country start going public against Yik Yak, asking parents and students alike to protest against anyone advertising, and letting venture firms know their is a price to pay, then this will get resolved.

      I also believe the ‘whack a mole’ concept is needed. If every time an internet company shows up with a business model based on anonymous postings around schools there will be a backlash, then eventually none will get funded.

      Again, thanks for all you do. This is a very serious issue and with some work and rallying, can be resolved.

  23. Jane Lassner Zeitchick

    Thank you for your leadership on this and other issues, John.

  24. A reader who wished to remain anonymous asked me to post this:

    I’m still concerned about the child being bullied in your previous post……now this new post……..so glad you are addressing bullying in your blog,
    Dan….the effects can and do remain with victims throughout
    their adult life…..

    I don’t get why people don’t understand how dangerous, malevolent , and
    toxic bullying is..

    I’ve had some conversations with government people I know who say the Department of Homeland Security and FBI actually take bullying very seriously, as there are growing studies that link bulliess with adult antisocial and even
    psychopathic behavior.

    As well, victims of bullying have been found to have increased thoughts of
    suicide, self harm, and interestingly are frequently victimized in other ways later in life. All this is being researched and studied, but there is enough info out there already to alarm anyone.

    Here is a link to a story about studies on long-term effects: http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2014/04/19/304528674/mental-and-physical-toll-of-bullying-persists-for-decades

    • Bobbie Herman

      It’s true. I was bulied mercilessly from the ages of 10-13, after moving into a new community. The resulting lack of self-confidence caused me to make several bad decisions in my adult life. I think I’ve pretty much recovered, but I still think about it often, and it still hurts. I moved out of that town as soon as I could and returned as infrequently as possible (to visit my parents, who still lived there).

    • Bart Shuldman

      Sad to read how Yik Yak is responding. They don’t understand that anonymous postings are not just bad for schools, but what about in offices. Do they think bullying after 18 years old is ok? Their business model must change to remove the capability of anonymous postings.

  25. Monika Lazaro

    As the parent of three elementary school children, I was terribly disturbed to read the article and the brilliant piece by Will Haskell. Thank you to our school administrators for taking charge quickly and to Dan for informing us. I would like to see a follow up piece on what the school is doing or has done to find the culprits and what the consequences are for those who posted. As important as it is to continue the work on ethics and kindness, it is equally important to dissuade others from trying it again, on the next such site, by making sure they know that anonymity is not maintained and that consequences are real and severe.

  26. I think that the school administration should communicate with all parents in the district about this. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to urge parents to check their children’s smartphones for this and other potentially anti-social apps.

  27. We have communicated with parents over the last three years MANY times about monitoring their children’s phones. We cannot discover who is making the posts since the post is designed to be anonymous. If a parent feels that her/his child has been bullied or threatened, however, the parent can go to the police. If the police agree that it is bullying or threat of physical harm, they can get a warrant to find the owner of the post. I think that very thing has been done once or twice. Once it was because a threat was made to blow up a school. We will continue to work to educate young people about using technology in this way. It is really a community response that is required. It seems to me that this should be the topic of discussion in every church, synagogue, mosque and temple in Westport. Yik Yak has already come and gone but a new one using video and photos has taken its place. There will be another tomorrow and another after that. Anyone with a tablet, smart phone, smart watch, smart? will have access to these sites over the public 3G and 4G phone networks. It is a new world and we are seeing, at the moment, the dark side of that world.

  28. Interesting. Westport Now ran two posts related to this subject and received a grand total of zero comments.

  29. Bobbie Herman

    I guess Dan’s reader are more dedicated.

    Also, it’s difficult to post on WestportNow. And they won’t accept AOL.

  30. Marina Evenstein

    As a parent of two elementary school students who just moved to Westport recently mainly because of the schools … this is really disturbing, but I guess expected… Bullying starts very very early unfortunately and really starts with small things… and some of these things include intolerance and judgement that comes from families unfortunately. Even in the small comments kids make about each other. Had witnessed recently a 9 year old girl at the school event in front of her mother and other children saying things about the girl not present there in terms of her being fat…. very sad. Plus, I am not really getting it… why are the PHONES allowed at lesson time in school? shouldn’t they be busy learning?

  31. Nancy Hunter Wilson

    What happened to reading?
    Do parents no longer supply their children a library of the best of children’s and young adult literature? How about cautionary tales?

  32. Jessica Bram

    Will Haskell’s article and byline were prominently displayed this morning on a national story about Yik Yak on NBC’s Today Show. Well done, Will. Fortunately (for once) the name and location of the school were not identified, but SHS was only one of many high schools nationwide to encounter this near shutdown. Here’s the video http://www.today.com/id/49063771/ns/today-video#55071274

  33. Marion Howard

    I have a sophomore daughter at Staples. Over dinner we talked about Yik Yak, about bullying, about technology…and I found her analysis surprising. (In a good way.) While she fully empathizes with the students who were targeted by this anonymous cyberbullying, she also offered her own personal coping method saying that anyone who posts such vile comments has wasted the time it took to compose and post. And, further, why should she spend even a moment of her time reading, let alone occupying herself with, the nonsense ideas expressed by those who so wastefully spend precious time? (Putting the burden of embarrassment back on the bully.) I hope this is an attitude held by many/most students at Staples who know they have better things to do…