School That Suspended Kids for Posting COVID Photos Won’t Release Records

Paulding County School District—the district that encompasses North Paulding High School, which recently suspended multiple students for posting photos of crowded hallways during the coronavirus pandemic—has refused to release records related to the suspensions under public records laws in part because it says doing so could jeopardize the school or district receiving federal funds.

“The District is in possession of responsive documents,” the response, signed by W. Thomas Cable in their role as the attorney for the Paulding County School District, reads. “However, pursuant to Georgia law, the following categories of information have not been produced, via redaction or removal, to the extent a statutory exclusion is directly applicable.”

Motherboard filed the Georgia Open Records Act request seeking emails sent and received by the district related to the recent suspensions. Earlier this month, two North Paulding High School students told BuzzFeed News they were suspended for posting images and in one case a video to Twitter which showed reams of children in overcrowded corridors at the school. Some of the children were not wearing masks, according to the images.

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“Day two at North Paulding High School. It is just as bad. We were stopped because it was jammed. We are close enough to the point where I got pushed multiple go to second block. This is not ok. Not to mention the 10% mask rate,” 15-year-old Hannah Watters, one of the students who said they were suspended, wrote in one of the photo’s captions, BuzzFeed News added.

Following widespread media attention, Dr. Brain Otott, superintendent of the Paulding County School District, said in a public statement that, “Following a review of a situation at North Paulding High School that resulted in the suspension of two students, the principal of NPHS notified the students today that their suspensions have been rescinded and all records of the suspensions deleted.”

The public records request response also says the records are “specifically required by the federal government to be kept confidential.” School districts often attempt to reject freedom of information requests on the grounds of student privacy, but districts and individual schools should be able to produce redacted records that protect privacy while still giving information about how specific decisions were made behind the scenes.

Kathy Brister, vice president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, told Motherboard in an email that “The district should release records making appropriate redactions to protect student privacy, particularly in light of the withdrawal of the disciplinary action the school had originally imposed.”