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The struggle to address serious student misbehavior in Akron schools

Safety team member Donnie Tillman (center) and English teacher Wendy Brown (right) search backpacks at the start of the school day at Garfield Community Learning Center in Akron on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Safety team member Donnie Tillman (center) and English teacher Wendy Brown (right) search backpacks at the start of the school day at Garfield Community Learning Center in Akron on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

Across the country, schools have reported seeing student misbehavior skyrocket since the end of pandemic-related school closures, and it's been an especially challenging last few weeks for the Akron Public Schools in particular.

Two students were arrested after bringing loaded guns to school, and a student was stabbed during a fight, among a host of less-extreme examples of misbehavior that teachers say they experience regularly.

Alana Treen, a teacher at East High School in Akron, said students' attitudes and behaviors have gotten out of hand.

"There's aggression. There's, 'Call my parents, they know what I'm doing. They don't care, nothing's going to happen to me,'" Treen said.

Treen loves her job and her students. And she understands they’re dealing with a lot.

"(Some of) their family members are in jail..." she said. "I can't tell you how many days that my students missed because they're going to funerals."

Treen said teachers recognize that fact, and know their students well; if students are having a bad day and act out, they work with them to figure out what's wrong.

According to the school district, roughly 10% of students face homelessness each year. Some have parents struggling with addiction, Treen said. Others have undiagnosed mental health issues. And when needs aren’t being met at home, students bring their struggles to school, teachers say.

Concerned parents and teachers packed the Akron Board of Education meeting Monday. Melissa Pontius, an intervention specialist at Firestone Community Learning Center, said Superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack and the district's upper administration need to do more to address the misbehavior.

"I see my current student sometimes unable to use the restroom at school because they don't want to walk into a haze of vape smoke, or a brawl," she said. "I see students in the cafeteria refusing to clean up after themselves and walking around in large groups, going unchallenged when they leave the lunchroom to roam the hallways."

Fowler-Mack, who’s been superintendent for roughly a year and a half, has come under fire from the teachers union recently due to the safety issues, as the union and administration continue to differ on contract negotiations.

Recognizing the safety concerns, the school board voted Monday to approve Fowler-Mack’s request for more than $3.5 million for new metal and weapons-detectors, bag scanners and camera upgrades, along with some new mental health programming. Fowler-Mack said it's a start, with the district considering plenty of upgrades to boost physical security while also addressing students behavioral problems.

Staff move metal detectors away from the main entrance doors at Garfield Community Learning Center after students entered on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Staff move metal detectors away from the main entrance doors at Garfield Community Learning Center after students entered on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

"We are responding. We know that there is more that we can do and are open to doing," she said. "We do want to pledge our willingness to work with our teachers and community members, with our parents, to really not only weather this current storm, but to really get to thriving in the way we know that our schools are capable of being, that we're really able to focus more on educating our young people and not so overwhelmed by the behaviors of a few."

Board members supported the measure, but some said they were worried about making the schools look like a prison. Board President N.J. Akbar and Vice President Derek Hall declined to vote for the metal detector portion of the district's requested upgrade. Akbar noted he's not a fan of metal detectors and wanted the district to do further research on other options.

Board member Diana Autry voted for the metal-detector provision, but worried that the boosted security might contribute to criminalizing the district’s student body, which is overwhelmingly made up of students of color.

"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," she said.

Pat Shipe, president of the teachers union, said teachers welcome the physical security upgrades, but that's only one part of their concern. Teachers feel like students aren’t being held accountable for serious infractions, like teacher assaults and fights.

"The biggest area where we do not see enough, or in some cases any, effort by the district right now is working on the student behaviors within our buildings," she said.

Shipe alleged that building principals are being asked by the administration to keep their suspension numbers down.

"What is that going to accomplish? It's not going to solve the behavior problem," she said.

Dan Flannery, director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University, has been studying violence prevention in schools for 30 years

Given mass shootings, Flannery said it’s understandable schools across the country are "hardening" their exteriors with metal detectors and more security officers and school resource officers (police assigned to a school). But there’s little research that shows those measures reduce violence inside schools, and, in fact, some evidence suggests more school resource officers means minor issues end up getting referred to law enforcement instead of being handled by the school, potentially giving students a criminal record.

There are approaches that work, Flannery said, pointing to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, which, in the wake of a mass shooting at SuccessTech Academy in 2007, implemented a “hardware and humanware” approach.

"So the hardware was, you know, increased security and policies around locked doors, etc.," he said. "And then the humanware part was sort of the programs that could be implemented in the school to really focus on improving school climate and improving kids engagement and attachment to school."

Flannery said research supports programs that focus on fostering social-emotional skills — tools to manage emotions and build healthy relationships with others — which CMSD has had in place for some time and Akron began implementing last year.

Beyond that, schools need to provide additional layers of support and accountability for students, from rewarding positive behavior to having teams of staffers constantly analyzing whether students are posing a risk to themselves and others. Along those lines, the Akron board approved funding for a new Youth Mental Health First Aid program, which Yvonne Culver, director of APS' counseling department, said will help train staff without a social work background to recognize the signs of students in a mental health crisis.

Flannery added that districts need to provide consequences for student misbehavior. But expulsion — especially "zero-tolerance" approaches where students are outright expelled for certain high-level offenses — don’t help students address their root problems. Suspensions, meanwhile, should be paired with help addressing the issues students face while they're suspended.

"So the idea is you don't want to just kick them out to nothing and tell them, you know, come back in a month," he said.

Akron has a variety of approaches to suspensions, including placing students in nontraditional school settings that offer specific help for those with social, emotional or behavioral needs, or specific suspension settings for students with disabilities. The Akron Beacon Journal reported earlier this year that the school district suspends students at a higher rate than many of its similarly-sized peers.

Mark Williamson, the spokesperson for the Akron schools, said the district recently boosted in-school psychologists to 70, and now has a guidance counselor for each school building, in addition to partnering with area counseling agencies to have a presence in schools.

Shipe countered that a recent survey suggested those counselors spend 75% to 80% of their time helping students with academic and career choices, not their mental wellbeing.

Charles Morrison, campus principal at Garfield Community Learning Center in Akron, searches a student's backpack at the start of the school day on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Charles Morrison, campus principal at Garfield Community Learning Center in Akron, searches a student's backpack at the start of the school day on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.

The measures outlined by Williamson are comparable to those undertaken at CMSD. Spokesperson Tom Ott said CMSD has 86 psychologists on staff, counseling services provided by area agencies, and a full-time school nurse in every building, who are able to help spot when students are struggling.

One additional support CMSD has that Akron does not, however, is Say Yes Cleveland’s family support specialists in each school building. Ott noted those staffers often have a background in social work and also serve as a line of defense in noticing students struggling and figuring out how the school or broader community can help them.

Shipe and other parents also say Akron needs to do something about student access to phones. Treen, the teacher at East High School, said students use them to coordinate fights and to bring more spectators when a fight happens.

"It turns situations into riots very quickly, and yes, 'riot' is an accurate word," she said.

The district already has a policy that requires cellphones to be powered off during class time. Board members said Monday they want to investigate how the schools can better enforce it.

Treen noted teachers are having a hard time dealing with disruptions in the classroom without extra support from the administration.

"It shuts your whole room down when you when it turns into, 'I've got to call the principal. I've got to get a security guard. I've got to do a write up,'" she said. "And no one's getting any education."

Meanwhile, administrators have highlighted in the past that the number of students misbehaving are in the severe minority at Akron Public Schools. D'Essence Jackson, a senior at Buchtel Community Learning Center and student Akron Board of Education member, noted during the board meeting this week that discourse around student misbehavior misses a lot of good that's going on at the district. She's enrolled in college and Advanced Placement courses, has a 4.0 grade point average, and is on the road to going to college with the hope of becoming an OB/GYN.

"As a youth advocate, I feel that the negative behaviors and attitudes of scholars in the media overshadow the positive behaviors and attitudes that the majority of the APS scholars have," she said. "The negative attention makes me feel a little angry and a lot of disappointment."

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.