Administrators tasked with school safety responded to recent headlines and persistent concerns about school climate and a culture that, according to murky statistics, ranks Akron high for disciplining students.

“Our suspension data clearly says that our culture is to suspend kids,” Dan Rambler, director of Student Support Services, told the school board Monday.

Last year, Akron issued student discipline more frequently than all but six districts and 22 charter schools. However, no Ohio school district keeps suspended students in school like Akron, which enrolled one percent of Ohio’s students and accounted for 10 percent of all in-school suspensions.

Also, nearly 90 percent of Akron students receive no disciplinary action. The image of heavy-handed student discipline is driven by roughly 200 repeat offenders, less than a tenth of a percent of all students, who have been suspended for more than 10 days.

Rambler outlined a plan to curb high disciplinary rates and change the culture and climate of Akron schools. “It’s always on our mind to have students and staff have safe learning environments,” Rambler said.

Rambler’s proposal includes: re-examining the “historical practice” of sending students to alternative programs for “a set number of days”; expanding alternative-to-suspension and expulsion programs; encouraging mentoring and other community partnerships; developing a reintegration process for students returning from expulsion or suspension and giving staff and teachers training to deal with student trauma.

Akron prescribes to a code of student conduct and a union labor agreement that often mandate consequences, such as compulsory recommendations for expulsion or a shuffling of problem students from one school to the next.

Administrators, however, must be careful not to undermine state law, which protects a student’s right to an education.

To ensure that right is not arbitrarily revoked, each principal’s mandatory recommendation to expel a student triggers a due-process hearing. Such hearings are underway for half of the 26 Kenmore students who have been referred for expulsion after an unresolved gang dispute spilled into the school this month.

The process dictates that downtown administrators review student records and building-level investigations, and listen to psychologists, who explore extenuating factors such as trauma, poverty, abuse and waning family support.

Expulsions may be reduced to suspensions or in-school alternatives, or thrown out. If an expulsion stands, students may appeal to the superintendent or his designee, Rambler.

Following a 100-person brawl at a Kenmore-East football game in November, police arrested seven students.

All were initially recommended for expulsion by Kenmore’s principal. Due-process hearings reduced five expulsions to suspensions and converted the remaining two to in-school alternatives.

One student, who reportedly joined his mother in assaulting a coach and team doctor, was later convicted in Summit County Juvenile Court. But his attorney successfully argued the case on appeal, and administrators erred on caution after discovering that building-level staff failed to collect sufficient interviews from witnesses.

The union, not uncharacteristically, has grieved the student’s return to Kenmore.

Akron offers 750 seats in 10 programs that provide in-school alternatives to disruptive out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

Rambler expanded this year a partnership with the Akron YMCA, which had provided 30 seats — many for special-needs students — in the Phoenix program. The program added 50 seats for middle school students at Barrett Elementary.

“Changing culture ... goes hand-in-hand with an alternative program,” Rambler said. “You can’t just say you’re going to stop suspending and expelling students.”

Rambler and the school board have acknowledged the apparent successes of Cincinnati Public Schools, which formed a comprehensive alternative program nine years ago and hasn’t reported a single expulsion since 2006.

Cincinnati has since reported the lowest disciplinary actions per pupil among Ohio’s eight largest urban districts.

But the data can be misleading. Students drop out of Cincinnati Public Schools twice as frequently as they do in Akron. Cincinnati also enrolled roughly 2 percent of the state’s students, yet accounted for nearly half of Ohio’s emergency removals, making it difficult to determine if Cincinnati’s comprehensive alternative programs are getting results, or simply referring to expulsions by another name.

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.