VALDOSTA — 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, Milledgeville, Ga., 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
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.
She said administration wants to learn why the discipline issue is happening.
"Our goal with student discipline is always for students to understand that there's a consequence for their actions, but we're also here to help support them so that they don't continue to make that same mistake," McCall said.
Lowndes does not have a zero-tolerance policy, McCall said. She said a progressive discipline plan is followed, and she said discipline is about learning from mistakes, not merely punishment.
Sandra Wilcher, Lowndes County Schools director of student services, said discipline is about accountability and learning to grow. She said LCS wants students to understand their mistakes are not a defining moment in their life but a teachable moment.
Thomas County Middle School Principal James Thompson would agree. He said school discipline today is more than punishment, and TCMS takes a "padded glove" approach to discipline.
"In discipline, we always look at why," Thompson said.
He said if a student's discipline problem takes place in the morning, it might be because of something that happened at the child's home that morning or the previous night, or if the situation arises in the afternoon, the discipline issue might be the result of a lack of sleep or something that happened at school earlier in the day.
Valdosta City Schools has also expressed the importance of understanding the why behind student discipline issues. Multiple Valdosta schools have implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which is a framework to reduce discipline incidents as well as reward good behavior.
Scarlet Brown, assistant superintendent of support services at Valdosta City Schools, said a new intervention for students with social and emotional needs in elementary schools has been implemented.
Named the Promoting Relationships through Opportunities, Mentoring, Interventions, Supports and Education, it is called the PROMISE Program.
She said the program is a way to provide support and intervention, rather than addressing issues with discipline referrals, in-school-suspensions or out-of-school suspensions.
Brown spoke of steps being taken by VCS, saying two additional behavior specialists were added this school year, and there are four full-time social workers. She said trauma sensitive school trainings have also been given, and school-based mental health services are provided at seven of eight Valdosta schools.
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.'"
Informing students of discipline beyond providing a copy of the handbook is also practiced at Lowndes High School. McCall said she speaks to the students per grade level about the student code of conduct and behavior expectations.
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.
Wilcher said when a student has a discipline issue that would warrant a potential referral to the alternative program, the school administrator would complete a referral to the board of education, which would come to Wilcher. The student and parents would then speak to her about what has happened and the appropriate punishment and then enter a tribunal waiver for the student to attend the alternative program.
Parker Mathis Learning Center, Lowndes County Schools' alternative program, had four students from Pine Grove Middle School, 22 students from Lowndes Middle School, eight from Hahira Middle School and 69 students from Lowndes High assigned there in the 2016-17 school year, according to Georgia Department of Education data. The number is down from the number for 2015-16, with 150 students having been assigned to the alternative school.
At Dalton Public Schools, students may be sent to the Dalton Alternative Education Program, which had 52 referrals during the 2016-17 school year.
The Horne Learning Center, Valdosta City Schools alternative school, had five Valdosta Middle School students, 22 Newbern Middle School students and 62 Valdosta High School students assigned there during the 2016-17 school year, according to state school board data. The number is higher than the 65 students assigned to the alternative school during the 2015-16 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.
Tift County had 103 enrolled in its alternative school who were classified as disruptive students and 15 enrolled who were classified as non-disruptive students in the 2017 fiscal year.
Baldwin County's alternative school had 50 enrolled in the 2016-17 school year.
Thomas County Schools had 45 students enrolled in its alternative school for the 2016-17 school year, a decrease from 71 the previous academic year.
Thomasville City Schools alternative school for high school and middle school students had an enrollment of 99 students during the 2016-17 school year. Superintendent Dr. Laine Reichert said the city alternative school has fluctuating enrollment throughout the school year.
For Grady County, there were 51 students enrolled in the district’s alternative school during the 2016-17 academic year, a slight decrease from the previous school year.
However, placement in alternative school doesn't have to be permanent.
GETTING BACK TO CLASS
In Lowndes, being sent to the alternative program is not an irreversible decision, Wilcher said. She said the goal is to get that student back to the "home" school.
"The goal is always to get that student back to Lowndes High or whatever their school of origin is," Wilcher said.
She said after meeting expectations, students may be referred back to their "home" school.
McCall said some students were enrolled in the alternative program by choice and not for disciplinary reasons.
Brown said 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.
"We have a lot of incidents where students may be placed at the alternative school ... and then the student and/or the parent both want the child to remain in the alternative school because that environment works better for the student," Brown said.
She said the alternative school can offer more flexibility and a smaller learning environment.
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.
For Valdosta City Schools, there were a total of 2,944 student incivility related incidents reported for the 2016-17 school year, according to Georgia Department of Education data. VCS had 8,103 students enrolled at the end of the 2016-17 school year, which has increased since.
Assistant Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Scarlet Brown spoke said student incivility is like a "catch-all" discipline incident code, which is why it is more frequently seen than other, more discrete discipline incidents.
"If you look at student incivility and read the definition of that, it really covers a lot of different things that you would see in a school setting, such as disrespect," she said.
She said the student incivility code is broad.
"It's a broad, catch-all category that captures and reflects various different discipline infractions that kids may commonly engage in in schools," Brown said.
State data shows Lowndes County Schools had a total of 837 student incivility incidents reported for the 2016-17 school year, making student incivility the most frequent discipline incident reported overall. LCS currently has more than 10,500 students enrolled.
Baldwin County Schools had a total enrollment of 5,225 in the 2016-17 school year with student incivility incidents reported the most for a total of 2,651 incidents, according to Georgia Department of Education discipline data. Of the 2,651 cases, 1,790 were from Oak Hill Middle School.
Student incivility was also the most frequent incident for Thomas County Schools with 1,784 incidents reported in the 2016-17 school year, according to discipline incident data. With 1,372 incidents reported, Thomasville City Schools also saw student incivility-related incidents as the discipline occurrence reported the most overall for the 2016-17 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.
Tift County Schools had more disorderly conduct incidents, with 837 reported during the 2017 fiscal year. Student incivility incidents numbered only 362.
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.
With about 500 students enrolled, Scintilla Charter Academy's highest discipline numbers reported were the 20 incidents of battery, which constitutes the intentional touching or striking of another person to cause bodily harm, according to state data.
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.
Thomas County Middle School Principal James Thompson suggested communication with parents as the first step in the discipline process.
"Conversations with parents is the first step — pull them in on the behavior," Thompson said.
Parents may contact counselors with their concerns, and then other school administrators may be contacted, Lowndes High School Principal LeAnne McCall said.
The Board of Education meetings also include a public participation opportunity where a student or parent may express education-related concerns without naming specific personnel.
In regards to discipline actions, Sandra Wilcher, Lowndes County Schools director of student services, said privacy can deter a parent from knowing what kind of discipline action has been taken upon another student.
"When there's a discipline issue with one student, we can't tell another parent or person how we've handled that," she said. "They just have to trust that the school is handling the situation. We provide the utmost confidentiality to our students for, obviously, all the legal reasons but also all the right reasons."
She said for an outsider looking in, what may have happened may not always be clear due to maintaining the confidentiality of those involved.
McCall said some issues may arise between students off campus and outside of the school day through social media, but until that happens during school or affects the school day, the administration cannot take discipline action.
However, she said the administration is willing to help parents during those times.
"Those of us who have teenagers are well aware of how different it looks for teenagers today than it did several years ago," McCall said.
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.
Kimberly Cannon is a Reporter with The Valdosta Daily Times. Her extension is 1376.