'All of us are frustrated': What people are saying about violence in Akron schools

On school tours, including a trip this month to East Community Learning Center with the head of the teachers union, new Akron School Board President Derrick Hall said he could "feel a sense of urgency to address student behavior."

"There are some schools that are pretty tame. When you walk through, you're like, 'OK, this is an environment where kids can learn,'" said Hall. "But I've been in some schools where there is trash on the floor. There are clouds of vape smoke emanating from the bathrooms and corners of the hallway. The smell of weed, marijuana. And kids roaming the halls during periods when they're supposed to be in class.

"And I've talked to teachers who are traumatized," he said.

Hall spoke with the Beacon Journal after we published an analysis of 240 police reports and thousands of student disciplinary records covering the first half of this school year.

The documents give a rare, real-time look at the violence and chaos that regularly hijack learning in some schools. In more than 1,000 fights involving nearly 1,400 students so far, children and teachers have been hospitalized.

Students last school year were cited 3,000 times for fighting, a 5% increase from just before the pandemic and a 37% jump from the two or three years before that.

The Beacon Journal published our findings last week hoping to spark broad conversation about solutions to the heightened level school violence.

School safety crisis:We examined 240 police reports on incidents at Akron Public Schools. Here's what we found

Since then, we have heard from readers with ideas of their own. We've also learned of several community conversations or efforts underway to address the problem. The discussions involve everyone from top city and school officials to students who are sometimes left out of the conversation.

And the Beacon Journal is hearing across the board — from parents, teachers, community leaders, pastors and school staff — about the need for less talk and more action.

What community members, teachers are saying about report on violence in Akron Public Schools

Bad behavior is a spectrum in Akron Public Schools. Some building experience few issues and no fights. Others have recorded as many as three brawls, on top of other deviant acts, on a single day.

The 240 police reports reviewed by the Beacon Journal captured the most extreme incidents. Representing about 10% of all fights, they are not the norm in terms of student misconduct. They also do not reflect the outcome of investigations that determine the credibility of serious criminal allegations like assault and rape.

But they generated a flurry of reader responses that do reflect the complexity of the problem and its many possible solutions.

“As hard as it is to read, (and to live through if you are a teacher), it is vital to have this view if we have a prayer of solving the problems,” a reader wrote in an email. “I hope you can continue this reporting, with a focus on solutions (but not shying away from the problems either).”

How safe are Akron's schools?Police reports paint disturbing, violent picture

By the numbersWhich Akron schools file most police reports, see most fights?

The parent of a special needs kindergartner who faced expulsion this year talked about the need for more classroom resources and better training for educators.

Another parent trying to protect her kids from threats on Snapchat voiced frustration.

“The cops won’t do anything, and my voice isn’t being heard,” she pleaded.

What we know:Here's how Akron Public Schools decides whether to notify parents, staff about threats

Multiple teachers said they’re struggling to keep order and attention during 90-minute class periods. One educator said teachers pour their personal time, money and resources into building relationships, but it's an uphill battle.

“No matter what I have done, it just does not seem to be enough,” the teacher said. “We all have great relationships with our students, but … there are too many outside influences which pull at these kids to where our relationships aren’t enough. We cannot be with them after they are home.”

Another teacher of 28 years described her last three as “the most difficult of my career.”

A reader said he’s “not a fan of the Beacon or your work” but congratulated the “tremendous amount of information” in the articles. And a community member lamented that negative publicity in the reporting, although “needed,” could push more Akron families to move away or enroll children in private and charter schools with less public oversight and accountability.

Superintendent Christine Fowler Mack: Discipline data shows more work needed to improve student behavior

Akron Public Schools Superintendent Christine Fowler Mack
Akron Public Schools Superintendent Christine Fowler Mack

Superintendent Christine Fowler Mack told the Beacon Journal last week she has the "urgency to get on top of student behavior, and do so now."

The district has added and is hiring more counselors, she said. All part-time security staff now work full time. As a proactive measure, the district is adopting the juvenile court system’s Parent Project to provide more strategies for families and more mentoring and behavioral monitoring for students.

This is in addition to family liaisons, climate and success coaches, and other expanded roles given to staff, as well as security upgrades on metal detectors, door bell alarms and cameras.

Still, Fowler Mack acknowledged the discipline data shows more work is needed to improve student behavior that was a concern long before COVID struck.

"There are levels of fighting, disruptions and arguments, occurring in some places that just shouldn't be,” Fowler Mack said in an interview last week. “I was not only a student in this district, I started my teaching career in this district. And, so, I'm clear about our expectations for our schools.”

Fowler Mack said the district needs community buy-in at the same level the mayor and police chief have requested to disrupt violence and its root causes.

“We're involved at this point with a range of persons (mental health partners, faith-based organizations, community leaders, council members and more) who are interested and willing to be a part of the solution,” she said. “We are trying to get more action instead of just continuing to talk about this topic.”

Fowler Mack grew up in East Akron. Before becoming a principal and returning in 2021 as the superintendent, she got her first teaching job at Robinson Elementary in 1989.

But much has changed from the relative comfort and stability of her childhood, when she knew that her older sister's teachers would be hers in a couple years and that she could stay at school all afternoon as a Brownie in the Girls Scouts. Families didn't move as much, she said. Kids were more likely to have the same classmates through graduation. There were lots of clubs and activities, she recalled, and no social media

Who's talking about youth violence in Akron Public Schools?

Some community efforts are already underway to understand and address violence in Akron's schools.

Love Akron, a Christian-based non-profit run by Garfield football coach Kemp Boyd, won a $50,000 grant from the city of Akron's $145 million share of federal COVID-19 relief money to launch The Locker Room Project this school year.

Kemp Boyd, executive director of Love Akron
Kemp Boyd, executive director of Love Akron

Boyd's group has convened a couple dozen students at each high school to talk candidly about how to solve school violence, as well as personal experiences that shed light on root causes.

To hear from mental health experts, mentors and others who support student success, Boyd and Love Akron host a "leadership symposium" every quarter in partnership with APS Athletics Coordinator Joe Vassalotti. This quarter, on March 1 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the University of Akron student union at 303 Carroll St., roughly 130 students in The Locker Room Project (and their ideas) will headline the symposium.

It's just one example of how discussion about school violence is leading to solutions.

Improving safety:Six solutions to make Akron Public Schools safer for students and staff

Boyd is also part of an eclectic group of civic, social, community and faith-based leaders, from political activists and protesters to the superintendent and school board president, who first met in December at the request of Marco Sommerville.

The deputy mayor of governmental relations at City Hall initially tasked them with preparing the city for whatever decision is reached in the Jayland Walker investigation, hoping to avoid the volatility that gripped Akron when body-worn camera footage of the fatal police shooting was released in early July.

"It's morphed into what's going on in the schools and building some trust among people in the community," Sommerville said of the group's first two meetings and a third scheduled for Saturday.

Sommerville said he's working on his own answer to youth violence. In the meantime, the city administration has awarded $4.4 million (on a budget of $7.5 million from the COVID relief funds) in Violence Intervention and Prevention grants as Mayor Dan Horrigan follows a 5-year-old plan that includes boosting recreational opportunities for youth.

Akron City Council members want more discussion on youth violence

This week, Akron Councilman Russ Neal said the evidence is clear that there's "something missing" with that plan. The West Akron councilman last year requested that the city allocate 10% of its federal COVID stimulus to the individual school clusters. Colleagues rejected the plan. On Monday, he said the low values of homes and high cost to insure them are tied directly to the alarming level of violence in the schools and community.

“So how can we, as a council, not take any action, not have any conversation about how this violence in the schools and out in the community is impacting our society as a whole?” Neal asked.

Councilman Shammas Malik, who like Sommerville is running for mayor, pushed back “a little” on the notion that no one’s talking.

"We’re all having our own conversations," the Northwest Akron council representative said.

“I know all of us are frustrated by the situations that we read about in the Beacon Journal, that we see in our wards,” said Malik, who hosted the superintendent at his last ward meeting to discuss safety upgrades at Litchfield/Firestone, where loaded guns were found this year.

"I do think it would be appropriate given that it’s the new year to meet with the school board in a joint meeting now that they have kind of gotten out from the immediate turbulence that they were in around the contract (negotiations)," Malik suggested. "I do think it would be helpful to make sure that we are, as two bodies, on the same page with regard to some of those measures that they’re taking and that we’re taking.”

Hall, the school board president, is open to a joint session. But the school doesn't tell the city how to plow roads or lower sewer bills, which impact attendance and basic needs of students. So Hall said he and his colleagues don't expect to be usurped in their duly elected responsibility to oversee education.

He added, in general, that he's "disappointed" that it took school safety issues apparent at Garfield and Buchtel for years to peak in Firestone and Ellet before all of Akron started talking about it.

Reach reporter Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Community reacts to disturbing report on Akron schools violence