Georgia School Cancels Suspension of Student Who Shared Photo of Crowded Hallway
“Anything that’s going on social media that’s negative or alike without permission, photography, that’s video or anything, there will be consequences.”
Autumn normally is a time for schools to welcome back students, but during the coronavirus pandemic, some organizations are rethinking their reopening plans. Others, like North Paulding High School in Dallas, Ga., are operating like normal. When 15-year-old Hannah Watters shared a photo of a crowded hallway, the school promptly suspended her, a decision it has since reversed.
Originally, Principal Gabe Carmona levied a five-day suspension at Waters when she posted photos of students jam-packed in a hallway to Twitter, Indianapolis-based WSAV-TV reported. On Friday, Carmona called to offer his apology and retracted the punishment after media backlash and the involvement of the district superintendent.
“I took the photo initially after seeing the first day of school photo taken by someone else go online as well and got picked up by some media coverage,” Watters said. “And I took it out of mostly concern and nervousness after seeing the first days of school.”
She referenced another image that was similarly shared before hers, EcoWatch reported. The student who shared the picture on the first day of school did so from an anonymous Twitter account, but told Buzzfeed News that he had also been suspended, Lateshia Beachum wrote for The Washington Post.
Video footage tweeted by CBS journalist Jamie S. Kennedy captured Carmona lecturing students on punishment for sharing images online.
“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 declared.
The photo of a crowded hallway shared by Watters, like the anonymously-posted photo before it, clearly depicts a majority of students gathered in distances smaller than 6-feet apart. Although the photo was taken from behind students, many can be seen not wearing masks, a point more evident in the anonymously-shared photo.
“There is no question that the photo does not look good,” Superintendent Brian Otottt said in a letter to the community. “Students are in this hallway environment for just a brief period as they move to their next class.”
However, he said, “Some in the news media and some individuals on social media are talking this photo and using it without context to scrutinize our school reopening efforts.”
The school does not require masks, opting to leave the choice to students, against the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Wearing a mask is a personal choice and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them,” Otott wrote.
Although Otott’s district is not requiring personal protective equipment, he said social distancing and masks are “strongly encouraged. Furthermore, district employees will be provided face protection and rethinking school schedules to minimize overcrowding during passing periods.
Legitimate Safety Concerns as Students Test Positive
With Watters’ suspension now lifted, the student called her decision to share the photo “some good and necessary trouble,” echoing the words of the late Rep. John Lewis, D–Ga., CNN reported.
“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.”
Watters said she was motivated because CDC guidelines weren’t being followed.
The school disagreed with her decision to share the photo on social media for three reasons: using a cell phone during the school day, using social media while at school, and violating the privacy of other students by photographing them.
Watters said she didn’t post the photo while at school, however, and her grade level is not subject to the restriction on cell phones. She conceded on the school’s third point, but told CNN she has no regrets about it.
Paulding County School District has 33 schools with more than 30,000 students. Several football players at North Paulding High School tested positive for COVID-19 before the fall semester began, which gave Watters more hesitation about returning, she said.
Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan also weighed in on the matter as Watters’ suspension gained national attention, CNN reported. He compared schools to businesses in needing to “earn the trust and confidence” of their communities.