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Gainesville school officials implement new juvenile code changes
Schools are suspending fewer students
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Program Director Stacy Patrick works with Gainesville Learning Academy students. The school has allowed students avoid expulsion from class at Gainesville High School and continue their studies. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Gainesville schools have eliminated about 700 days of out-of-school suspension for students this academic year after implementing changes from the state juvenile code.

The revised code was adopted by the Georgia General Assembly last year, with a Jan. 1 implementation date, and aims to reduce recidivism among truant, drug-using and other students with behavioral problems. The goal is prevention rather than suspension or prosecution.

“The burden comes to us,” Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said.

The code refers to a “truant, unruly, incorrigible” student as a “child in need of services.”

Schools are now charged with demonstrating they have taken added steps to prevent, intervene, engage and assess students with disciplinary issues. This can include convening a committee of parents, school officials and counselors to put a disciplinary plan in place.

Moreover, a petition must be filed with the juvenile court before a formal complaint can be made against a student.

“For the school setting part, the difference is that kids used to go to court for truancy automatically,” said Susan Bagwell, Hall County’s director of student services. “Now they go through this (other) process.

“The committee makes a decision on whether we treat the child in the communities first. And then if a child’s not successful, moving them to juvenile court.”

Gainesville school officials said the goal is to get troubled students back to school and their regular classroom schedules within three days rather than have them face a tribunal, which results in 10 days of out-of-school suspension.

To meet these goals, in-school suspension rooms at Gainesville High School and Gainesville Middle School have been converted to classrooms with teachers certified in working with these students. The change also allows the students to continue their studies and receive tutoring.

Additionally, a juvenile justice officer has been placed in the school system, and two classified positions have been converted to “learning support coordinators.”

Finally, the school system has contracted with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hall County to target programs for these students.

There have been zero tribunals for students at Gainesville Middle School this year after 25 were initiated last year.

Meanwhile, tribunals at Gainesville High School have fallen to four this year after topping out at 39 last year, an 89 percent decrease.

Three students avoided expulsion by being offered virtual learning opportunities, and 12 students were sent to the Gainesville Learning Academy, a separate program for student offenders to remove them from the typical school environment. It’s the last resort for the school system before referring a student to the juvenile system.

In all, there have been 77 fewer tribunals this year, school officials said.

“That doesn’t mean no one got in trouble,” Dyer said, adding it just means less severe discipline was meted out.

School officials said total disciplinary referrals are down, and school resource officers are now focused on repeat offenders.

Hall County officials expect their truancy numbers to reflect a downward trend, after parents and students get used to procedure changes.

“I predict that we are beginning a baseline look at the impact (the program) will have,” Bagwell said. “After a time, changes in court procedures should impact family and student decisions, but we may not see that yet.”

Staff writer Carly Sharec contributed to this report.