Students enrolled in Georgia K-12 education spend about six hours a day at school for 180 days out of the year.

With all that time and all of those students, discipline is an inevitable part of a school administrator's job.

Administrators in the Sunlight Project coverage area of Valdosta, Tifton, Thomasville, Dalton and Milledgeville know discipline needs vary.

Many expressed less tolerance of "zero-tolerance" discipline policies that would require the administration to give consistent and harsh punishment when rules are broken.

Steve Bartoo, principal of Dalton High School, said "common sense" is a better approach to student discipline than zero tolerance.

"I am not a fan of zero-tolerance polices because they often do conflict with common sense," Bartoo said. "We try to take a common-sense approach."

He provided an example of weapon-related incidents that require context.

"Pocket knives are pretty common here," he said. "We get kids saying, 'I went camping over the weekend and I forgot it was in my jacket' or something like that. When that happens, we take the knife and we ask a parent to come get it back, and if there's no malicious intent, we use common sense."

Brett Harper, assistant principal of Northwest Whitfield High School, provided a similar example.

"At Northwest, at the start of each year, we pull each class into the auditorium and speak to them," Harper said. "I handle discipline and pick a few things to talk to them about. And one of the things I tell them is that at some point this year one of you, or more likely a few of you, will reach into your pocket and realize you have brought a knife to school or maybe a shotgun shell from when you went hunting or maybe you had your wisdom teeth taken out and you brought some medication to school you weren't supposed to. The minute you realize you have done this, come and see me or go and tell your teacher. We'll take care of it."

Harper said in his experience, kids have done well at following this instruction and bringing things forward to the administration.

"In fact, this year, I had a student who brought me a knife before we even had a chance to even have that meeting," he said. "That was handy because I could tell them, 'This is going to happen, because it has already happened.'"

As Lowndes High School Principal LeAnne McCall said, teenagers make mistakes.

She said the school reaches out to students whenever a discipline issue is recognized.

"In general, our administrative team, anytime we see a student for a discipline concern, we're always going to be counseling with that child," McCall said.

Alternative schools

However, even with that information and a more tolerant discipline approach, there are cases where the regular school environment is considered no longer viable for a student due to discipline issues, and that's when alternative schools and alternative programs come in.

McCall said some common actions leading to a referral to the alternative program are drugs on campus, alcohol on campus, students being involved in multiple fights in the same school year, or cumulative offenses, which are multiple discipline offenses within the same school year.

At Dalton Public Schools, students may be sent to the Dalton Alternative Education Program, which had 52 referrals during the 2016-17 school year.

Whitfield's alternative school had a total enrollment of 109 for the 2016-17 school year, with 63 from high school and 46 from middle school. The 2016-17 alternative school enrollment was slightly higher than the 2015-16 enrollment of 102 students, Georgia Department of Education data showed.

Getting back to class

McCall said some students were enrolled in the alternative program by choice and not for disciplinary reasons.

Placement at the Valdosta City Schools alternative school is also not permanent.

Upon entering the Horne Learning Center, she said a parent can either sign a waiver to waive a tribunal hearing or go to a tribunal hearing prior to the student being sent to the alternative school. She said the student would serve at the alternative school for the remainder of a school term or for one full semester, whichever is greater, then student's placement is evaluated.

Georgia Department of Education student discipline data shows one of the highest numbers of incidents reported by multiple school systems in the Sunlight Project coverage area for 2017 are related to student incivility.

The state school board defines student incivility as "insubordination or disrespect to staff members or other students; includes but is not limited to refusal to follow school staff member instructions, use of vulgar or inappropriate language and misrepresentation of the truth."

The state lists three levels of student incivility.

• Level One is general disrespect or failure to follow instructions.

• Level Two is blatant insubordination and/or profanity directed toward school staff.

• Level Three is giving false reports on school staff and/or three or more offenses in the same school year.

Whitfield County Schools' enrollment was 13,168 for the 2016-17 school year. The discipline incident occurring most frequently was, again, student incivility with 1,352 state reported incidents, according to Georgia Board of Education data.

However, the trend was not seen in every school system in the coverage area.

Dalton City Schools reported a relatively low amount of discipline incidents. With an enrollment of 8,148, Dalton's highest number of discipline incidents were the 40 drug-related incidents reported in the 2016-17 school year, state school board data showed.

According to Georgia Department of Education 2016-17 discipline action count data, ISS is one of the most frequent discipline actions taken by schools in the Sunlight coverage area.

The harsher punishment of expulsion was used rarely in the coverage area during the 2016-17 school year.

Lowndes County Schools had four non-permanent expulsions; Valdosta City Schools had six non-permanent expulsions; Baldwin schools had one permanent expulsion and six non-permanent expulsions; Whitfield County Schools had one non-permanent expulsion and six permanent expulsions; Tift County Schools had six permanent expulsions and 12 non-permanent expulsions; Dalton County Schools had one permanent expulsion and four non-permanent expulsions; and Thomas County Schools had one non-permanent expulsion.

For Thomasville City Schools, there were no expulsions. There were also no expulsions for Scintilla Charter Academy.

However, students aren't the only ones affected by discipline action. Parents may express concerns.

Visit gadoe.org to find the full Georgia Department of Education discipline incident and discipline action data.

The SunLight Project team of journalists who contributed to this report includes Kimberly Cannon, Charles Oliver, Patti Dozier, Eve Guevara and Will Woolever. Editors Jim Zachary and Dean Poling edit and coordinate the SunLight Project.

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