Photos of crowded school hallways in Paulding lead to national stir

Free speech argument emerges after two students suspended

Photos of a crowded high school hallway have propelled the 30,000-student Paulding County School District into the national news this week and into debates over school safety and free speech.

The photos, reportedly taken by students on the first few days of classes and posted to social media, show the hallway packed with students at North Paulding High School, with few masks to be seen — both in conflict with the safety protocols advised by epidemiologists who say social distancing is key to fighting the spread of COVID-19 and masks are crucial when six feet of distance isn’t possible.

The photos quickly drew angry responses from people questioning school administrators’ handling of the back-to-school safety plans.

That anger intensified with reports that at least one student who photographed the crowded hallway was suspended after being applauded online as a whistleblower.

Superintendent Brian Otott confirmed one suspension during an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Thursday, and would not say whether the suspension was connected with the photos. This was out of regard, he said, for the student’s privacy. A district spokesman later confirmed the second suspension.

Lynne Watters, the mother of one of the students, said the family is challenging the suspension of her daughter, Hannah, 15. Cell phone use is allowed in between classes and the sophomore waited until after regular school hours to post to social media, her mother said in a text message. “I feel they are selectively enforcing the rule in question,” she wrote, adding that Hannah has never been in trouble at school.

Similar photographs have surfaced at other schools that opened their doors this week, including one that shows scores of unmasked students shoulder-to-shoulder outside Etowah High in Cherokee County. As more districts open in the next few weeks, it’s likely other photos of students in jammed hallways without masks will crop up on social media.The photos have triggered news articles in national media and clashes on social media, with one side expressing outrage over the risks and the other asserting the danger is overblown.

“We know that picture didn’t look good,” Otott said. But he said it also belied the intense effort his staff put into engineering a safe return to school despite challenging logistics. Most hallways in the building were made into one-way routes to reduce congestion, but the school kept one hallway — the one seen in at least one photo — open to both directions to cut down on students’ travel time. Some students must cover the equivalent of two or three football field lengths when moving between classes.

In a statement Friday morning, State Schools Superintendent Richard Woods said, “We have also heard concerns about students disciplined for sharing photos taken at school. To be very clear, discipline decisions are constitutionally the purview of local boards of education. 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.”

Masks are another flashpoint, in both Cherokee and Paulding, neither is mandating them for students, and Paulding isn’t mandating them for staff either, though it is supplying them for teachers.

With the students’ online posts, Otott said students are allowed to use their cellphones in the hallway but that other students have “that expectation of privacy in most circumstances” making photographs in some circumstances a violation of the district’s rules.

The students’ punishment drew pointed reactions on social media and from rights advocates.

“Instead of addressing students’ concerns about the safety of returning to a school jam-packed with unmasked people during the pandemic, North Paulding High School suspended two students who spoke out on social media and threatened other students if they did the same,” said Michael Tafelski, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s children’s rights project.

“We share the outrage expressed by people across the country at these wrongful suspensions,” he said.

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, said that if a school allows students to use their cellphones in a hallway, it can’t discriminate against the messages communicated unless they are disruptive.

“A hallway is certainly not a private space. Nobody could bring an invasion of privacy claim for being photographed in a hallway,” LoMonte said.

Paulding spokesman Jay Dillon, who participated in the interview in the superintendent’s office, said the suspension was more complicated than it appears on its face. “You’re taking this one hypothetical situation and boiling it down to the photo being taken,” he said. “There’s more to it than that.”

One local health expert said the Paulding hallway photo he saw depicted conditions that were ideal for spreading the coronavirus.

“That’s exactly the kind of situation that school planning should ensure doesn’t happen,” said Dr. Harry Heiman, a clinical associate professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health. ”It’s not a question of if that’s going to cause spread of the pandemic. It’s only a question of how quickly and to how many people.”

Otott said the district built in the two days at the end of this week as a timeout to reassess the precautions. Students are studying online at home while his staff overhauls the protocols. He envisions changes to the bell schedule so all students aren’t flooding the hallways at the same time, plus changes to the pickup and dropoff lines and redistribution of students from loaded school buses to nearly empty ones.

He asked for patience as the district tackles an unprecedented task, and tries to give what two-thirds of the parents wanted: in-person schooling.