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Akron school board approves $3.7 million for security, mental health support

Akron schools picture.jpg
Akron schools picture.jpg

The Akron Public Schools Board of Education voted Monday night to spend almost $3.7 million to enhance security and boost mental health support in schools after hearing from an audience packed with parents and staff concerned about school safety and student misbehavior.

The expenditure comes after a number of high-profile incidents in recent weeks, including two students arrested for bringing loaded guns into schools.

The money approved by the Board will pay for the following improvements for the district's middle and high schools, where the district has seen the most issues recently with student misbehavior.

  • About $1 million for high-tech metal and weapons-detectors, on par with those seen at airports and other urban schools in Ohio, including Cleveland.
  • Roughly $700,000 for X-ray bag scanners (similar to those seen at TSA checks at airports).
  • New cameras (about $1 million) and camera software upgrades, along with a three-year contract with a company to operate them (about $770,000) and a $44,000-per-year contract for a company to update software over a two-year period. Chief Operating Officer Stephen Thompson said many of the district's cameras are "failing" and in need of replacement.
  • A new mental health training program for students and staff called the Teen Mental Health First Aid program ($55,000).
  • About $20,000 for implementation of the an active threat response training program for school bus drivers, aides and security professionals.
  • A new Peer Mediation training program to allow students and staff to learn how to mediate disputes among students ($23,000).

The approval came after lengthy discussion by the board around the need to balance external safety at school with a desire to avoid criminalizing students. Board Member Diana Autry said she did not want the schools to look like prisons.
"I am just so disturbed to hear school and prison in the same conversation so much today," she said. "And I understand the needs that we have to keep everyone safe, but we have to be so mindful that these are still students, no matter what infractions that they are doing."

Earlier in the meeting, parents, staff and teachers — many of them wearing Akron Education Association (the teachers union) shirts — filled the meeting room and the hallways outside.

Melissa Pontius, an intervention specialist at Firestone High School, said Akron Public Schools' upper administration and the superintendent need to ensure that student wrongdoing is met with meaningful consequences.

"I see my current students sometimes unable to use the restroom at school because they don't want to walk into a haze of vape smoke, or a brawl," Pontius said.

Pontius and others noted district policies barring student use of cellphones at school are also being flouted. The phones have been used as tools to instigate and record fights, in open violation of the district's policy barring the use of cellphones during class time. Another common concern cited by parents and staff was students being allowed to wander hallways, along with chaotic class transitions.

Superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack and the board of education members said they take the concerns seriously, and they appeared to agree that more needs to be done.

"I, too, wanted to add my voice, along with the board, in acknowledging the frustration and acknowledging the fear and acknowledging the challenges that we're experiencing in our community and in our schools," Fowler-Mack said. "So we are, as an administrative team, listening. We are responding. We know that there is more that we can do and are open to doing."

Fowler-Mack has been under fire from the teachers union in recent weeks amid ongoing contract negotiations and escalating concerns about student violence and frustration around bad behavior.

Fowler-Mack and other administrators said the district is still considering other measures to improve safety, such as improving door locks and alarms to prevent students from letting in other students to skirt security check-ins. She said they're also working to create an environment that is welcoming and that rewards positive behavior.

Thompson, the chief operating officer, said the new equipment approved by the Board will be installed over the next several months, with cameras to be rolled out over the next year.

Corrected: December 13, 2022 at 4:10 PM EST
Melissa Pontius said her concerns with a lack of meaningful consequences for student misbehavior originate with upper Akron Public Schools administration and the superintendent, not her own school's administrators.
Conor Morris covers education in Northeast Ohio.