Principal drops penalty for Georgia teen over school photos

FILE - In this photo posted on Twitter, students crowd a hallway, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, at...
FILE - In this photo posted on Twitter, students crowd a hallway, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga. The Georgia high school student says she has been suspended for five days because of photos of crowded conditions that she provided to The Associated Press and other news organizations. Hannah Waters, a 15-year-old sophomore at North Paulding High School, says she and her family view the suspension as overly harsh and are appealing it. (Twitter via AP, File)(Twitter via AP, File)
Published: Aug. 7, 2020 at 4:35 PM EDT
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ATLANTA (AP) — A Georgia high school student said her five-day suspension for sharing images of crowded conditions on campus was lifted on Friday after she appealed and said she was ready to take her case to court.

Hannah Watters told The Associated Press that her principal called her mother, apologized, and completely removed her punishment, leaving her surprised and “very grateful.”

She had been suspended for taking a photo and video that she shared with news organizations to raise an alarm after seeing that most of her fellow students weren’t wearing masks to reduce the spread of coronavirus infections.

District spokesperson Jay Dillon declined comment. He said officials could only discuss students’ disciplinary status with parents’ permission.

Waters, a 15-year-old sophomore, posted the images on Tuesday showing crowded hallways at the 2,400-student North Paulding High School in Dallas, northwest of Atlanta.

“There was no social distancing, a 10% mask use rate, it was chaos,” she told the AP as she began serving her punishment at home.

Multiple football players at North Paulding tested positive last week, underlining the likelihood that their contacts could be spreading infections once on-campus instruction began Monday. At least one Paulding County elementary school student was diagnosed with the virus this week. It’s unclear where or when these students were infected, but transmission is widespread in Georgia.

Paulding County’s 30,000 students had been offered a chance to learn remotely from home, but the system’s online learning slots filled up. Watters chose in-person learning, relying on assurances that the district could do this safely. She said she was “highly disappointed” that her district is making masks optional. She kept tallies of her classmates and found only a third were wearing masks.

“Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them,” Superintendent Brian Ottot wrote to parents on Tuesday.

By then, someone else had posted a photo of crowded hallways and unmasked students on social media. Watters then decided to take her own photos and video, and gave the AP permission to publish them after they too circulated widely online.

“It was mostly out of anxiety and disappointment and being scared,” she said.

By midday Wednesday, Watters was called to the principal’s office, where she heard an announcement over the school intercom that there would be “consequences” for anyone who sent out video or pictures that were “negative” without administrators’ permission.

She said school officials cited three student code of conduct violations. She admits that she didn’t ask anyone for permission before recording the images, but disputes the other violations, noting that the code allows high school students to use cell phones during a class change, and she did not access Twitter to post the photos until after school.

Watters said lawyers volunteered to represent her if administrators didn’t lessen the punishment. Another student also was suspended, Paulding County school district officials confirmed Thursday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That student’s status wasn’t immediately clear.

Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said Paulding County’s attempt to restrain student speech raises constitutional issues.

“Students must not be disciplined for exposing health and safety issues at their school, particularly in the midst of a pandemic,” said Harris, whose group advocates for student journalists. “The school district’s policy related to cell phone and social media use on campus raises serious First Amendment concerns in and of itself.”

The students’ advocacy appears to be having an impact.

In a second letter to parents on Thursday, the superintendent said “social media and news coverage” had compounded the district’s challenges, and that he was “reviewing student discipline matters.”

The district also is working to reduce hallway crowding and reinforce mask wearing, social distancing, and cleaning protocols. As for families who felt forced to send their children to school after online learning slots filled, Ottot said the district would clear the waiting list for online learning “in coming days.”

Georgia state Superintendent Richard Woods, in a Friday statement, 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.

Watters said she’s anxious about returning amid pressure from “people not liking that I put Paulding County and North Paulding on blast,” but she cited a saying favored by recently deceased Georgia congressman and civil rights pioneer John Lewis, saying she has no regrets about getting into “good trouble.”

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.