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Yik Yak anonymous message board app causes uproar at schools

BullyingLaws and LegislationColleges and UniversitiesCrime, Law and JusticeSuicideJim Beall, Jr.

A smart phone app that allows users to post messages anonymously is coming under fire for fostering cyberbullying, leading to at least two juvenile arrests, school phone-use bans and several campus lockdowns.

Scrutiny of the 4-month-old Yik Yak app for Android and Apple devices has spread from the Southeast to the Northeast to the Midwest and, this week, to the West Coast.

The app has registered more than 10,000 downloads on Google’s Play Store and, according to AppAnnie, has cracked the top 100 most popular apps on Apple’s App Store. Yik Yak’s creators said a month ago that the app has more than 100,000 users.

Like on Twitter, users can post short blurbs of text. But these “yaks” don’t have any name or user name attached to them. The messages can be read by the 500 "yakkers" who are nearest the writer. The app is free but the writer can can pay to distribute messages to more people over a wider geographic area.

But crude, derogatory and threatening posts sprinkled among trifling conversation have distressed educators.

In Mobile County, Ala., a 16-year-old and 14-year-old were arrested after three schools essentially shut down for a day because of threats posted on Yik Yak. One of the juveniles has been charged with making terroristic threats.

Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich told reporters last month shortly after the arrests that authorities had tracked down the children after Yik Yak shared location data collected by the app. Yik Yak’s website doesn’t say under what conditions it cooperates with law enforcement.

The website also doesn’t disclose specifics about data it collects from users’ devices or for how long data is stored. A short note simply reads that “we will never require any information from you other than your location.”

Yik Yak didn’t respond to requests for comment from the Los Angeles Times. Last month, the two recent college graduates who created it said in a news release that they intended the app to be used at universities.

“We created Yik Yak to give college students a private platform for communicating with their entire campus,” said an unnamed Yik Yak cofounder, who, according to the release, prefers to remain anonymous. “Yakkers have used the app to find a place to crash, report lost and found items and alert other students about deals at nearby bars.”

The chaos in Mobile led one Christian school’s senior Bible teacher to suggest the idea of creating a place to post upbeat, anonymous messages. In this case the message board isn't in cyberspace -- it's a school hallway.

Seniors started posting notes on a wall and the idea trickled down to elementary school hallways, Faith Academy spokeswoman Shelley Mitchell told the Los Angeles Times on Friday.

“We didn’t have any incidents like threats, but we were made aware that some of our students were on the app and not sharing the most positive things,” she said. “We just wanted to take a positive approach, and the teacher gave that suggestion about how much a positive note can make in people’s day and lives.”

On the still growing display of notes, people thank teachers and parents. They also show appreciation for cleaning crews and cafeteria workers, Mitchell said, calling that the “neatest part.” 

Faith Academy already has a ban on using mobile devices during the school day. At least one nearby school adopted a similar ban in the wake of a threat posted on Yik Yak.

“I personally wonder, ‘Do the kids not have enough work to do?’” Mitchell said. “I don’t know how they have the time for that.”

This week, threats found on Yik Yak led to back-to-back evacuations of a high school in Marblehead, Mass.; the lockdown of a Decatur, Ala., middle school; and the lockdown of a high school in San Clemente, Calif. Authorities were investigating each of the incidents.

“It’s safe to say we’ll do whatever it takes to find out who’s behind this,” Orange County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Jeff Hallock told The Times on Friday.

Most of the schools that have been subject to threats on Yik Yak say they’ve blocked students from accessing the app directly through campus Internet networks.

At least four Chicago-area high schools warned parents about Yik Yak in the past two weeks, the Chicago Tribune reported. Principals have asked parents to delete the app from their children’s devices.

One of the app’s creators told the Tribune in an email that the app would no longer be usable in the Chicago area while the developers addressed concerns.

For schools, preventing cyberbullying has become a major point of enforcement because of new legislation and the threat of legal action.

The latest such efforts have come in California and New Jersey.

Using the suicide of sexual assault victim Audrie Pott, 15, of San Joseas an example, State Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose) proposed legislation Friday that would increase the penalty for sharing photos or electronic messages meant to embarrass, harass or intimidate someone.

In New Jersey, the mother of a 15-year-old suicide victim filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Morris School District, the Daily Record reported. Sharon Varnelas alleged that officials failed to stop three students who were bullying her son, Lennon Baldwin.

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BullyingLaws and LegislationColleges and UniversitiesCrime, Law and JusticeSuicideJim Beall, Jr.
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