At least two North Paulding High School students who shared images of their jam-packed hallway full of their mostly maskless peers have been suspended, and the principal has warned other students about what could happen if they do the same.
North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., about an hour's drive from Atlanta, was thrust into the national spotlight earlier this week when pictures and videos surfaced of its crowded interior on day one and two of its first week back. The images, which showed a sea of teens clustered close together with no face coverings, raised concerns over how the district is handling reopening schools during a global pandemic.
Facing a fierce online backlash, Paulding County Schools Superintendent Brian Otott told parents and guardian in a letter that the images "didn't look good." But he argued that they lacked context about the 2,000-plus student school, where masks are a "personal choice."
Hannah Watters, 15, wore a mask as she captured the inside of her school. On Wednesday, she ended up with a five-day suspension for violating the district's student code of conduct, BuzzFeed News reported. The rules bar students from using social media during the day or using recording devices without permission from an administrator.
"Not only did they open, but they have not been safe," Watters told BuzzFeed News. "Many people are not following CDC guidelines because the county did not make these precautions mandatory."
The teen, who said she'd never before run afoul of the code of conduct, told the news outlet that she understood she broke the rules. But she also viewed her punishment as overly harsh.
Another anonymous student told BuzzFeed News that he too faced disciplinary action for the same reasons.
On Wednesday, Principal Gabe Carmona warned students about "consequences" if they copied Watters and the other student, according to audio obtained by CBS 46.
"Anything that's going on social media that's negative or alike without permission, photography, that's video or anything, there will be consequences," he told students over an intercom announcement.
Carmona and Otott didn't respond to requests for comment.
Watters told BuzzFeed that she and her family intend to fight the suspension. Paulding County's school code of conduct says the penalty for using social media or recording device can range from in-school suspension to expulsion, based on the degree of the offense.
Watters's speech probably would have been better protected had she been off school grounds and posted a social media message about what happened based on the district's policy, said Fred Smith Jr., associate professor of law at Emory University.
"From a rights perspective, the question I would have is whether or not the school has exercised similar discipline for other students who have posted anything during the school day, especially instances of people posting favorable things," he told The Washington Post on Thursday.
A lack of equal enforcement of the rule could pose a potential First Amendment issue because it could show the school applies rules to preferred speech, he said.
"Schools have a compelling interest in ensuring that there are not substantial disruptions on school grounds," he said. "As long as that's what going on, the school's within its rights."
Superintendent Otott emailed a letter to parents on Thursday that stated the district will be providing all staff with cloth masks and face shields and attempting to reduce crowding in high school hallways during class changes.
Social distancing and masks are "strongly encouraged," but the district has not required either and notified parents earlier this month that both would be nearly impossible to enforce on school buses and in classrooms.
Otott said that he and his staff will be "reviewing student discipline matters" that happened this week, likely referring to Watters and the other student.
"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.
The school district is also gaining more unwanted attention after a video shared on Snapchat allegedly showed a student in a virtual classroom using a racial slur, WXIA-TV reported.
One parent told The Washington Post her daughter wanted to return to North Paulding High School because she missed the social aspect. Michelle Salas said her daughter, Chelsea, has been horrified by how the school has handled reopening and how her fellow students have dismissed safety concerns.
Salas said her daughter has been bullied by fellow classmates for being vocal about her disappointment in the school's response to the virus and to Watters. But, she said, that won't stop her from speaking out about what she sees wrong in the school - even though consequences are possible.
"It feels like she has her middle finger up but in the right way," Salas said.
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The Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes and Haisten Willis contributed to this report.