You will recall the brief clusterfuck that occurred earlier this month in Georgia’s Paulding County. The school district there, which opened back up for in-person classes while making wearing a mask completely optional, also decided to suspend two students who took and posted pictures of crowded hallways filled with maskless students. While the district dressed these suspensions up as consequences for using a smartphone on school grounds, the school’s administration gave the game away by informing all students that they would be disciplined for any criticism by students on social media in general. That, as we pointed out, is a blatant First Amendment violation.
Once the blow-back really got going, the school district rescinded the suspensions. In the days following, students and teachers at the school began falling ill and testing positive for COVID-19. It got bad enough that the school decided to shut down. With so much media attention, it was a matter of who was going to get the FOIA requests in for documents on what led to the suspensions first.
Vice put a request in. However, because this district can’t seem to stop punching itself in the gut, the school district is attempting to duck the FOIA requests entirely. Not through redactions. It just isn’t going to give up any internal documents at all, even as it acknowledges it has documents in hand.
“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.”
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.
Without question, the district has the ability to disclose the documents requested without violating any student or faculty privacy. What this is instead is a fairly brazen attempt to refuse a records request that will almost certainly be embarrassing for the district. Due to this, the refusal has gotten the attention of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, which doesn’t sound like the kind of group that is going to simply let this go.
The cover up is always worse than the crime, as they say. However bad those records would have made Paulding County School District look, it’s now going to look all the worse with this attempt to bury the truth, should those documents eventually come out. And, given the speed with which the district retreated from the suspensions when challenged, you have to imagine a little bit of public pressure is all it’s going to take here as well.