Georgia school district lifts suspensions of 2 students after photos of crowded hallway went viral

©TheAtlantaJournalConstitution

ATLANTA — A student suspended this week after posting a now-viral photo of a packed hallway at her school had her punishment lifted Friday, and so did another student.

The Paulding County School District made the announcement Friday afternoon, acknowledging the “significant national interest” in what it called “the issue” at North Paulding High School.

By then, sophomore Hannah Watters, 15, had already revealed on Twitter that her suspension had been rescinded. She had been suspended after taking a photograph Tuesday of a hallway that looked as crowded as any before the coronavirus pandemic, with few students wearing face coverings to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

“I spoke to the principal a short time ago and he has rescinded the suspension and she will have no discipline on her record,” Hannah’s mother, Lynne, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday morning.

The school district does not ordinarily comment on student discipline incidents, a spokesman said, but in this case and in that of another unidentified student, the parents agreed to allow the announcement. The district has never said why the other student was suspended, but Hannah’s was not the only hallway photo posted online.

In an interview with CNN, Hannah was asked if she regretted posting the photo. Her response channeled the late civil rights legend John Lewis: “I’d like to say that this is some good and necessary trouble, so I don’t regret posting this because it needed to be said.”

Her photo and the one by the unidentified photographer went viral and drew national attention to the district of about 30,000 students, along with widespread criticism on social media and from free speech groups.

“Students must not be disciplined for exposing health and safety issues at their school, particularly in the midst of a pandemic,” the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, said. Executive Director Hadar Harris called the suspensions “extreme measures” to encourage silence.

Paulding schools started Monday, ahead of most in Georgia. The state starts school ahead of much of the country, making events in that county something of a precedent.

The group is concerned that as other schools open across the country, “administrators are going to seek to silence reporting” by students, in violation of their First Amendment speech rights.

On Friday, Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods seemed to join the critics.

While not identifying Paulding specifically, he said in a statement issued by the Georgia Department of Education that he had heard the “concerns about students disciplined for sharing photos taken at school.” Under Georgia’s Constitution, discipline is the purview of local school boards, he noted. “With that said, I want to encourage our districts and schools to operate with transparency, and to ensure that students and staff are not penalized for expressing their concerns.”

The school also drew attention this week when a principal was recorded admonishing against public disclosures.

“Anything going on social media that is negative in our light without permission,” he said in the recording posted to Twitter. “There will be consequences. … ”

Paulding County School Superintendent Brian Otott said Thursday he was still investigating the recording.

“We need some time to make sure we’ve got all of our facts right, but I want any message that’s given out to be that that’s aligned with our mission and vision,” Otott said.

Two-thirds of Paulding parents chose in-person schooling despite budget cuts that make social distancing a challenge.

In a school board meeting in May, board chairman Jeff Fuller decried Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance calling for social distancing in classrooms and on school buses as “complete crap.” Instead, Fuller advocated for an “absolute normal return to normal activities” when schools opened.

“I want us as the school district of Paulding County to lead the way in an absolute normal return,” Fuller said, according to a recording of the meeting on the district’s YouTube channel.

Despite everything that’s happened this week, Lynne Watters said Hannah would be returning to school Monday.

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©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)