A Georgia student who was suspended after posting a now-viral photo of a packed hallway at her school had her punishment lifted, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Paulding County School District acknowledged the “significant national interest” in what it called “the issue” at North Paulding High School. Sophomore Hannah Watters, 15, was suspended last week after taking a photograph of a hallway that looked as crowded as any before the coronavirus pandemic, with few students wearing face coverings. Six students and three staff members have reported testing positive for the virus, Principal Gabe Carmona told parents over the weekend. The school district does not ordinarily comment on student discipline, but in this case and in that of an unidentified student, the parents agreed to allow the announcement. The district did not say why the other student was suspended, but Hannah’s was not the only hallway photo posted online.
Her photo and the one by the unidentified photographer went viral and drew national attention to the district of 30,000 students, along with widespread criticism on social media and from free speech groups. “Students must not be disciplined for exposing health and safety issues at their school, particularly in the midst of a pandemic,” said Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit advocacy group, said. The group is concerned that as other schools open across the country, “administrators are going to seek to silence reporting” by students, in violation of their First Amendment speech rights. Georgia School Superintendent Richard Woods seemed to join the critics, saying, “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.”