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Georgia state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, has introduced a bill with bipartisan support that would eliminate the number of suspensions and expulsions from the formula that determines a public school's key rating.

Every public school in Georgia gets a School Climate Star Rating. The state was the first in the country to implement the rating system that is designed to be a diagnostic tool to determine whether a school is on the right path to educational improvement.

There are four parts to the rating system: attendance; a student survey focused on a safe and substance-free learning environment; a more general survey of students, teachers and parents on the perception of the school's climate; and student discipline.

Student discipline uses a weighted suspension rate that makes up one-fourth of the overall rating.

The overall rating system is part of a school's College and Career Ready Performance Index, a key factor in determining which schools in the state are eligible to become one of the "turnaround schools." Those schools become eligible to receive additional support and oversight from the state.

Mullis' bill would not have schools stop reporting on disciplinary behavior but would instead remove student discipline from the formula that gives schools their 1- to 5-star rating.

In a Senate Education Committee meeting earlier this month, Mullis argued that hypothetically, when a fight breaks out at school, teachers and administrators might be tempted to deem the altercation less severe than it actually is. Reporting pushing and shoving instead of a fight would count less against a school's score.

Mullis said this happens often and removing the student discipline aspect from the formula would allow school staff to discipline in a "more strategic and more traditional manner."

The bill — which has 14 co-sponsors — has bipartisan support but might be adjusted before it reaches the Senate floor.

Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, said he supports the bill and that it will help inner-city schools. Jackson is on the Senate Education and Youth Committee where the bill was introduced.

"As it currently stands, schools are negatively rated when it comes to reports of school discipline and currently there's no difference between an altercation between two students and all-out riot," Jackson said. "They still rate the same. So to not count every encounter as a discipline action really helps inner-city schools because all discipline actions should not negatively affect schools."

Jackson believes too much weight is put on smaller disciplinary actions. He also knows how important this rating system is when families are looking to move and buy a home in a neighborhood and that equating small altercations to larger issues at school hurts schools especially in urban areas.

The latest data from the 2019 school year showed Georgia public schools averaged a 9% in-school suspension rate and a 6.4% out-of-school suspension rate.

In Northwest Georgia, the averages for the seven main school districts are on par with state averages at 9.1% for in-school suspensions and are much lower for out-of-school suspensions at 3.9%.

The two districts with the highest rates for in-school disciplinary rates are Dade and Walker counties, both of which are in Mullis' 53rd District, along with Catoosa and Chattooga counties.

In Walker County, 10 of the 16 schools scored four out of five stars in 2019. In Dade County, all four schools scored five stars. In Chattooga County, three of the 10 schools scored a five-star rating; the other seven received four stars. All 16 schools in Catoosa County earned five stars.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, another member of the Senate Education and Youth Committee, agrees with Mullis and her colleagues that the system needs to change but isn't fully on board with getting rid of the student discipline aspect altogether.

"I believe the bill Sen. Mullis has identifies a real issue, but there are good reasons that school discipline is included to a school's climate rating," Parent said. "We need to think carefully before we try to divorce the two."

Parent said the state has recently recognized some of the unintended consequences and damage caused by school discipline and is working toward a culture of positive behavioral interventions as opposed to suspensions and expulsions.

"It's proven that the type of discipline culture and methods used in a school does really affect the atmosphere in the school, which is probably not shocking," Parent said. "So this notion of divorcing it would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater."

Jackson agreed that the bill as presented might need some work, but said it's a good starting point.

"We know what we have does not work effectively in Georgia so we're trying to work with what we have, work with Sen. Mullis, and this gives us something that can take us in the right direction," Jackson said. "I think this bill right now needs some work, but I think this will take us in the right direction not only for our children but for our entire state."

Mullis did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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