Three months before graduation, a fifth-year high school student with a history of bad behavior used a box cutter to threaten a student and a teacher, “sliding the blade in and out,” according to the teacher’s account.
Out of fear for personal safety, nearly every teacher in the school wanted him expelled or at least transferred. Instead, administrators gave him a suspension. He returned to school, graduated and now has a job.
This and other incidents are fueling a debate among Akron educators over the balance between safety and education.
The teachers union asserts that tensions haven’t flared this high since teachers, prompted by growing concerns over assaults, went on strike in 1989.
Now, for the first time in 15 years, grievances filed by teachers, who object to administrators’ handling of student discipline, are requiring an arbitrator to intervene.
One grievance has been denied by the school board and may be passed along to an arbitrator if mediation fails. That was the case in another grievance settled this month involving two unrelated March 2013 incidents in which three elementary students brought plastic BB guns to school and the high school senior displayed the box cutter.
In both cases, students were suspended, not expelled. All returned to their respective schools, despite teachers signing petitions in protest.
When the younger students returned to school a week after the BB gun incident, a group of outraged residents circulated a letter urging “concerned parents” to challenge administrators, who maintained that the guns were toys and no threats were made.
The punishments were unacceptable, said union leadership, who argued that the school board “fashioned itself” as “child advocates” while downplaying the seriousness of each case.
“Why aren’t we on the same page with this stuff?” asked Bill Siegferth, former president of the Akron Education Association. “Now keep in mind, these aren’t kids that just happened to make a mistake. They stole these guns. There’s a problem there. So why aren’t we partners in doing something about this?”
Administrators maintain that they must advocate for school safety and a student’s right to an education. They also argue that the punishments fit the crimes; the younger students returned the stolen guns to a discount store and the teenager went on to graduate without further incident.
Then came the March 11 brawl at Kenmore High School in which more than a dozen students were arrested on rioting charges after a gang dispute spilled into the school.
The code of student behavior mandates suspension for fighting — a midlevel infraction that can lead to a one-year expulsion, depending on severity.
Before being disciplined, each student has a right to due process, after which a hearing officer may overturn a principal’s recommendation, sometimes prescribed by the code of conduct, to expel or suspend a student.
In the first 100 days of this school year, there have been 45 cases of students physically assaulting staff members or carrying drugs or weapons, including a firearm at East High School, which resulted in one of only two expulsions. In addition, school staff members have been verbally assaulted by students 69 times.
The district has reduced the number of suspensions and expulsions issued each year since the mid-2000s as a national discussion has challenged zero-tolerance policies that set strict discipline rules and allow for little adjustment for circumstances.
In Columbus, a Republican bill — passed by the House last month and assigned to a Senate committee the next day — would extend the number of days that a student, who still poses a threat, can be expelled. A dueling bill supported by Senate Democrats, introduced three months earlier and yet to move out of committee, would banish zero tolerance from Ohio schools.
The majority of Akron students receive no discipline. Last school year, however, the district issued discipline more frequently than all but six Ohio school districts and 22 charter schools.
Driving the national discussion around zero tolerance is how minority students, particularly blacks, have received the lion’s share of discipline. Last year, Akron disciplined black students at a rate 3.4 times higher than white students. Statewide, black students were disciplined 4.9 times more than white students.
Akron has sought alternatives to suspensions and expulsions, including 52 seats available in two district-run programs where students spend the discipline-period in special classes rather than lose instruction time.
A third program, Phoenix, is run by the Akron YMCA and serves up to 30 students in need of more difficult behavior adjustments.
The program nearly worked for Rodrick Chisolm Jr., a Kenmore student who allegedly threatened a student with a box cutter.
At 18 years old, Chisolm was in his fifth year of high school after being kicked out of Garfield and East for threatening a student and teacher.
He was removed from each school and eventually sent to Phoenix.
“That school had changed me,” Chisolm said of being surrounded by what he called “real thugs.” “I didn’t want to go back there so bad that I started being good when I got to Kenmore.”
He said he stayed out of trouble for years, skipping lunches his senior year to finish in time.
Then, the admittedly “thick-headed” Chisolm screwed up again — this time frightening a teacher in a classroom where he did not belong and, innocently, he says, teasing a student while holding a box cutter he carried out of a construction class.
His mandatory referral for expulsion was reduced to a 10-day suspension after a due-process hearing.
When his teachers signed a petition asking for more severe discipline, Chisolm was shocked. “Why would you all not have me graduate?” he said. “You want me to stay in school, you know, make my life harder?”
Out of school for a year now, Chisolm rides 55 minutes on a Metro bus to work full time in a restaurant at Summit Mall. He’s glad to have been given another chance.
But his case — along with lesser punishments for the three elementary students who brought stolen guns to school, each labeled “not a toy” — has left the relationship between union and school board in rancor.
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.