Georgia high school students suspended for posting photos of crowds of unmasked students during COVID-19 pandemic

First posted October 6, 2020 10:14am EDT
Last updated December 16, 2020 9:38pm EST

All Associated Themes:

  • Professional Consequences
  • Social Media
  • Violence / Threats

External References

Two Students Say They Were Suspended From Their Georgia High School For Posting Photos Of Crowded Hallways, BuzzFeed News

Viral photo of crowded Georgia high school hallway lacks context, superintendent says, The Washington Post

North Paulding HS students risk punishment for exposing COVID concerns, CBS 46

Georgia student who posted photo of a crowded school hallway and called it ‘good and necessary trouble’ is no longer suspended, her mom says, CNN

9 students, staff test positive for COVID-19 after Georgia school hallway photo goes viral, USA Today

Suspension Lifted of Georgia Student Who Posted Photos of Crowded Hall, The New York Times

Message from Dr. Otott

Georgia school reverses suspension of teen who shared viral photo of hallway packed with students, The Washington Post

Re: Violation of Freedom of Speech / Suspensions for Photographs, Rutherford Institute

Georgia school seen in photo of a crowded hallway will briefly move to online learning after reporting 9 cases of Covid-19, CNN

North Paulding High School to remain closed for 3rd day after positive COVID-19 cases, WSB-TV 2

ACLU of Georgia sends Paulding County School District Open Records Request Concerning Its Disciplinary Practices, ACLU Georgia

Emotions run high at Paulding County School Board meeting following viral photo, Fox5 Atlanta

Paulding School Board, with strong support from parents, assures district plan for in-person learning is sound, 11Alive

35 students, teachers test positive for COVID-19 at North Paulding HS, CBS 46

Two students at North Paulding High School were suspended after posting photos and videos of hallways packed with maskless high schoolers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Although the district superintendent defended the school’s safety plan in a letter to parents, at least one student’s suspension was revoked two days after it was issued.

Key Players

North Paulding High School (NPHS) is located in Dallas, Georgia, a northwestern suburb of Atlanta. Part of the Paulding County School District, NPHS serves approximately 2,300 students. On Aug. 3, 2020, NPHS reopened its doors to students for in-person instruction, encouraging, but not requiring, them to wear face coverings, which have been proven to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

@Freeyourmindkid, who goes by “Black Aziz aNANsi,” is a Twitter account with nearly 95,000 followers. On Aug. 4, Black Aziz aNANsi posted a photo taken inside a crowded hallway at NPHS with the caption, “This is the first day of school in Paulding County, Georgia.” The tweet has amassed over 56,000 retweets and 96,000 likes as of Oct. 2. It is unknown who took the image.

Hannah Watters is a 15-year-old student at NPHS. On Aug. 4, she tweeted a picture of her unmasked classmates crammed together between periods with the caption, “Day two at North Paulding High School. It is just as bad. We were stopped because it was jammed. We are close enough to the point where I got pushed. . . This is not ok. Not to mention the 10% mask rate.” Watters also posted a video showing similar conditions as she walked through the school halls.

Brian Otott is superintendent of the Paulding County School District. On Aug. 4, Otott defended the school’s safety protocols for in-person instruction in a letter to the community. He lamented that the photo tweeted by Black Aziz aNANsi was being “used without context to criticize our school reopening efforts,” writing, “there is no question the photo does not look good.”

Gabe Carmona is the principal of NPHS.

The Rutherford Institute is a nonpartisan nonprofit that seeks “to provide legal services in the defense of civil liberties and to educate the public on important issues affecting their constitutional freedoms.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia is a nonpartisan nonprofit that “enhances and defends the civil liberties and rights of all Georgians through legal action, legislative and community advocacy, and civic education and engagement.”

Further Details

On Aug. 5, Watters received a five-day out-of-school suspension for violating the student code of conduct, which prohibits “using recording devices to video or record misbehaviors or to violate the privacy of others.” A second student, who wished to remain anonymous, told BuzzFeed News of being suspended for posting images on Twitter. A recording obtained by CBS 46 captured Carmona issuing a warning to the student body about sharing pictures online the same day Watters was suspended.

“Anything that’s going on social media that’s negative or alike without permission, photography, that’s video or anything, there will be consequences,” Carmona announced over the intercom.

Watters did not deny violating the school’s policy. She said she thought it was more important to highlight the lack of safety during the pandemic than to follow the rules. A screenshot of notes she used to track mask-wearing among her classmates, posted on Twitter on Aug. 5, shows that a minority chose to wear face masks.

“I’d like to say this is some good and necessary trouble,” Watters told CNN, referencing a pet phrase used by Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, whose death not long before this incident sparked nationwide mourning. “My biggest concern is not only about me being safe, it’s about everyone being safe, because behind every teacher, student and staff member there is a family, there are friends, and I would just want to keep everyone safe.”

On Aug. 7, John Whitehead, founder and president of the Rutherford Institute, sent a letter to Otott and Carmona expressing concern that the suspension of Watters and the second student infringed on their Free Speech rights. Although student speech can be restricted if it produces a “substantial disruption of the school environment,” Whitehead wrote, the students were punished because the images they posted reflected negatively on the district, not because they disturbed the school day.

“By revealing conditions in a public school that raise significant health and safety concerns—concerns that the public is entitled to know about—the students essentially acted as ‘whistleblowers’ in the greatest tradition of the First Amendment,” Whitehead wrote. “The District should make clear that heretofore students will not suffer ‘consequences’ for engaging in similar protected acts of expression.”

Whitehead urged Otott and Carmona “to renounce any threat of disciplinary action against students for social media posts.”

In a letter sent to parents documenting the first week of school, Otott said the district was “reviewing student discipline matters,” according to screenshots posted on Twitter.  “This is a new environment for all of us, but I want to reassure our community that we are addressing the issues that have come to light,” he wrote in the letter.


School administrators rescind Watters’ suspension

On Aug. 7, NPHS lifted both students’ suspension, as confirmed by Fox 5 Atlanta. Hannah Watters’ mother, Lynne Watters, said Carmona called to let her know her daughter could return to school and the suspension would be removed from her record.

“The principal just said that they were very sorry for any negative attention that this has brought upon her, and that in the future they would like for her to come to the administration with any safety concerns she has,” Lynne Watters said in a text message.

Hannah Watters told CNN she faced backlash for sharing the images. Her friends and family received screenshots of threats against her sent in group chats, she said. Photos posted by @Freeyourmindkid show Paulding County parents complaining about Watters in a Facebook group, one saying she deserves a “whooping” for her actions.

“I just hope that sooner or later everyone can understand that I’m not trying to shut it down and when I did expose the school district, it wasn’t to cancel the senior year, not to go after anyone,” Watters said. “It was just to keep us all safe.”

ACLU of Georgia investigates district’s disciplinary practices

On Aug. 10, the ACLU of Georgia submitted an open records request for data related to violations of the Paulding County Student Code of Conduct’s “personal communication/electronic devices” provision – the policy the school said Watters had violated. The request sought information about “in-school or out-of-school suspensions resulting from alleged violations of the policy, communications to or from district employees about the policy, and board of education meeting notes about the policy.”

“Students do not leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said. “Silencing and disciplining students for criticizing their schools — including their school’s response to a global pandemic — is unconstitutional.” 

Class instruction moves online after nine people test positive for COVID-19

On Aug. 8, Carmona notified parents that six students and three staff members who had been inside NPHS during the first week of school tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, Otott told parents that all classes would be moved online the first two days of the next week so the school could be cleaned and disinfected.

“Hopefully, we can all agree that the health and safety of our students and staff takes precedence over any other considerations at this time,” Otott wrote in a letter.

At a Paulding County Board of Education meeting on Aug. 11, teachers offered impassioned pleas for safe instruction plans.

“Today, I have six students out of 80 students wearing masks, and not only that, I had students making fun of the fact that I chose to wear a mask, that’s unacceptable,” Meredith Hanft, a teacher at South Paulding High School, told CBS 46.

Many parents demanded the district provide in-person classes; some gathered outside the building with posters before the meeting. “If my children were to have to stay at home consistently and try and do this online with me and my wife working full time, my children, they’re not going to make it,” parent Stuart Reynolds said.

Attendees also fought for and against mask mandates, according to 11Alive.

The next day, Otott announced the NPHS community had at least 35 confirmed COVID-19 cases, a 26-case increase in just five days. As a result, students would continue online learning before beginning a hybrid learning environment the next week.

“The plan we have developed will reduce the number of students on campus by half, will reduce hallway congestion, will improve traffic flow during class transitions, and will help mitigate other challenges we have identified since in-person instruction started,” Otott wrote.