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Suspension reversed for students who shared photos of crowded school hallway

A Georgia high school has reversed course and lifted the suspension of two students who were punished after posting photos of the school's packed hallways when classes resumed earlier this week. North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia, faced national criticism over the viral photos showing students shoulder-to-shoulder, with fewer than half wearing masks.

The family of one of the students told CBS Atlanta affiliate WGCL that school officials initially suspended her for five days. According to the family, she was suspended in part due to use of a cellphone in the school hallway, filming minors, and using social media during school time. 

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In this photo posted on Twitter, students crowd a hallway at North Paulding High School in Dallas, Georgia, on Aug. 4, 2020. AP

The student announced via social media on Friday, however, that the school had contacted her to reverse their decision. 

"This morning my school called and they have deleted my suspension," she wrote.

"To be 100% clear, I can go back to school on Monday. I couldn't have done this without all the support, thank you."

Paulding County School District said in a statement issued later Friday that two students' suspensions had been rescinded, but did not include a reason for the original suspensions or their reversal.  

"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in the suspension of two students, the principal of NPHS notified the students today that their suspensions have been rescinded and all records of the suspensions deleted," the statement says. 

"The school district's policy is to not comment on specific student discipline matters. However, due to significant national interest in the issue at North Paulding High School, parents of both students granted the district permission to confirm that the suspensions have been rescinded."

According to school district policy, the use of cellphones is prohibited for grades 9-12 during school hours — except outside of instructional time, including "during class change time." 

School policy further states that any use of "personal technology" to distribute or display "inappropriate material" is not allowed. The district lists numerous uses as inappropriate, including "disruption to the district, its employees or students."  

"Students shall not use audio or visual recording devices without the permission of a school administrator," reads the policy. "This includes, but is not limited to, using recording devices to video, photograph or record misbehaviors or to violate the privacy of others."

On Wednesday, North Paulding's principal, Gabe Carmona, made an announcement to students, stating: "Anything that's going on social media that is negative or alike without permission, photography, that's video that's anything, there will be consequences."

One student told "CBS This Morning" lead national correspondent David Begnaud he felt the principal's message was "quite weird and just, like, very threatening." 

A friend of the suspended student said he thought the school overreacted.

"In the handbook that the school gives us, it does say that you're not allowed to post pictures of the school online and other things like that," he said. "However, almost every single student has broken that rule before."

The ACLU weighed in on the situation, saying a student's First Amendment rights don't stop at the schoolhouse doors, and any punishment for students who speak out is "unconstitutional." 

Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, told WGCL that the school's claim that the photo violated the privacy of the students in the hallway is not valid. 

"That's just not true when you're in a crowded hallway in a public high school," he said. "You have no valid expectations to privacy."

Students at the school are not being required to wear face masks or sit at socially distanced desks, according to one student Begnaud spoke to. Georgia is now one of five states where students have tested positive for the coronavirus after going back to school.

Some suburban Atlanta school districts began in-person classes Monday with mask-optional policies. The day after school resumed, one school announced a second grader tested positive for the coronavirus, forcing the child's teacher and classmates to be sent home to quarantine for two weeks.

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