Imagine working with teenagers all day and thinking you could threaten them into keeping quiet. That you could simply shout “There will be consequences!” into the PA system, and kids would just stay off social media and stop telling the world about the spectacular debacle of their school reopening in the middle of a pandemic. That you could open a 2000-student school, after multiple students and faculty have already tested positive for COVID-19, and no one would ever find out about it.
Spoiler Alert: They found out.
After photos of crowded halls packed with unmasked teenagers at Paulding High in Griffin, Georgia went viral this week, Paulding County Schools Superintendent Brian Otott defended his district’s decision to re-open as Georgia’s infection rate spikes.
The halls aren’t usually so crowded as all that, Otott told the Washington Post, and then bizarrely claimed that the risk clock only started ticking after “being within 6 feet of a sick person with COVID-19 for about 15 minutes.”
He also defended his decision not to require masks for students.
“Wearing a mask is a personal choice, and there is no practical way to enforce a mandate to wear them,” he told the Post. “What we will do is continue to strongly encourage all students and staff to wear masks.”
That strong encouragement is convincing about a third of the students to make the personal choice to wear a mask, according to 15-year-old Paulding High student Hannah Watters.
Which is… not encouraging.
This is not an approach the school takes when it comes to dress code, though. Apparently the length of skirts worn by students in the district is not a personal choice, and it can be enforced. The school requires that skirt hems extend no less than “3” from the top of the kneecap as measured by a ruler or the length of a 3 x 5 index card” and even goes so far as to specify the maximum rise of a skirt’s slit.
Any girl who has been forced to kneel on the floor for a skirt check or spend the day in an extra-large T-shirt from the Lost and Found will remember the humiliation forever. But safeguarding the tender eyes of her fellow students is an academic priority, not a “personal choice.” Unlike, say, slowing the spread of a virus during a deadly pandemic.
And speaking of slowing the spread, Superintendent Chalmers Otott has hit upon a brilliant plan to quash online criticism of his school.
I was just sent audio of the Principal of North Paulding High School announcing that there will be “consequences” for anyone who posts video or audio of the school which depicts the school in a negative light. #NorthPauldingHighSchool pic.twitter.com/lKbuXJhCQd
— ????????Black????????Aziz????????aNANsi???????? (@Freeyourmindkid) August 6, 2020
There will be consequences!
In fact, there already have been consequences. As BuzzFeed reports, Hannah Watters was suspended for five days because she violated the school’s policy on phones in schools and posting images of other students without their permission.
And while students do surrender some of their First Amendment rights at the school door, the school can’t violate its own policies just to suppress criticism and hide what’s going on in its halls.
“I think my punishment’s severity was excessive, but I do understand that I violated a code of conduct policy,” Watters told BuzzFeed reporter Lauren Strapagiel. “We have a progressive discipline system. When disciplining me and the other student, they skipped level one and went straight to two.”
Watters told BuzzFeed that she and her family plan to fight the suspension.
Viral photo of crowded Georgia high school hallway lacks context, superintendent says (Washington Post)
A Georgia High School Suspended Two Students For Posting Photos Of Crowded Hallways (BuzzFeed)
Elizabeth Dye lives in Baltimore where she writes about law and politics.