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Akron teachers union blasts superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack for '48 hours of chaos'

Akron Public Schools 02430.jpg
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Public Schools headquarters in Downtown Akron.

The Akron Education Association blasted the leadership of Akron Public Schools Superintendent Christine Fowler-Mack, calling a series of incidents earlier this week “48 hours of chaos.”

Pat Shipe, president of the teachers union, said that chaos included a student fight that brought 14 Akron Police cruisers to Ellet Community Learning Center (CLC) Tuesday; a student who was stabbed by another student Wednesday at Buchtel CLC (the student was transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries); and a bomb threat that locked down Jennings CLC the same day.

“The violence is real,” Shipe said. “It is not exaggerated, overstated or imagined.”

The teachers union has criticized the district’s administration in recent weeks for safety issues at the schools, with teacher safety being a major sticking point in contract negotiations which have dragged on since the summer.

Don Zesiger, chief of security at Akron Public Schools, said in a statement provided by the district that the community as a whole must grapple with violence that is “prevalent in our neighborhoods,” and which is now “flowing into our schools.”

"We ask again that, in the shared responsibility we all have for student safety, our families engage in ongoing conversations about violent behavior and the serious consequences of making the choices some young people are making,” Zesiger said.

Shipe has previously said that teachers are being assaulted at Akron Public Schools roughly once every day and a half. A fact finder’s report detailing negotiations between the district and the union, which has since been rejected by the union, revealed that the district is seeking to change its definition of assault as well to be more fair to students accused of it.

Fowler-Mack said in a letter to parents and staff sent last week that any suggestion that school officials don’t respond quickly to student misbehavior is “false.”

“Our application of student discipline aligns with the Student Code of Conduct and is balanced with the empathy and compassion needed to redirect student behavior whenever possible,” she wrote. “This includes avoiding excessively punitive measures that shirk our responsibility to do what’s best for everyone, including our students who struggle with the issues that can lead to unacceptable behavior.”

She said the school district has put a significant number of resources toward school safety recently. Most of it mentioned physical security in buildings, things like cameras, door alarms and audits of building safety protocols, but she said the district also hired specific administrators to “oversee student behavior intervention and response, security technology and equipment, and safety personnel.”

But she also said the school’s approach to redirect students toward positive choices and keep them in school is backed by research.

“Our school-based behavioral health program and our K-12 social-emotional learning curriculum is a key component in our safety strategies, as we work to instill students with skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship-building and responsible decision-making,” Fowler-Mack said.

Sarah Payne, a concerned parent who spoke during the public comment portion of the Akron Public Schools’ Board of Education Monday, said she had pulled both her children from Akron schools because of her daughter being bullied frequently by a fellow student. She showed pictures of her daughter after the last incident in question where her daughter was allegedly knocked to the ground and fell unconscious, suffering a concussion. She said her child’s bully was not disciplined and that his behavior was tolerated by her school’s administration.

“What the teachers are saying about the violence is true,” she said. “All you could do is hide it”

Several members of the board apologized to the parent and said they hadn’t been aware of the incident, but encouraged her to follow up with the administration.

The board during the meeting also reviewed statistics on student discipline as presented by Fowler-Mack. Specifically, these were potentially expulsion-worthy incidents that had been referred to the district’s expulsion review committee, which is staffed by a group of teachers and administrators.

  • The most common infractions for students that were referred to the review committee recently were for assault of a staff member, fighting and causing physical injury. There were 38 instances of assault of a staff member and 49 instances of fighting referred in the first quarter of the 2021-2022 school year, and 38 instances of staff member assault and 35 instances of fighting in the first quarter of 2022-2023.
  • Of the 187 cases referred to the committee in the 2021-2022 school year, no students were expelled; seven were given an alternative punishment to expulsion; 21 were given “alternate placement" (likely meaning in other schools or facilities); seven received alternate interim placement; 77 were returned to school; and 75 were transferred to a different APS school.
  • Those numbers mostly rose in the 2022-2023 school year, with 249 total cases referred to the committee; 40 alternative punishments to expulsion granted; 19 alternative placements; five expulsions; eight interim alternative placements; 112 students returned to school; and 65 students returned to another APS school.
  • In 2021-2022, 1816 students were granted 5,744 days out-of-school suspension for offense, and 1,840 students were given 6,810 days out-of-school in 2022-2023. The Akron Beacon Journal reported recently that Akron Public Schools suspend students at a higher rate than many other schools in Ohio.

Fowler-Mack noted that these numbers represent only a tiny fraction of all students at APS, slightly less than 1%. She says punishment is doled out “with an eye toward, ‘how do we get the students on track and into a more successful behavioral pattern?’”
Research shows that exclusionary punishment – where students are removed completely from school – can cause lots of negative consequences for students, worsen behavioral issues and criminalize children from a young age.

“We're not shying away from the concerns. We're not diminishing those concerns. We want an environment that is conducive to good teaching and learning, and that starts with everyone feeling safe,” Fowler-Mack said during the meeting.

The pandemic has also worsened behavioral issues in schools, with pandemic-related school closures setting many students back significantly academically and behaviorally.

School Board Chair Akbar N.J. Akbar said during the meeting he would like to see more data on expulsion-worthy student behavior from before the pandemic to get a better idea of how that might have affected the district’s students.

The teachers union and APS school administration are set to meet with a mediator sometime in December to aid negotiations between the two entities.

Conor Morris covers education in Northeast Ohio.