Black students make up the vast majority of grievances over discipline filed by mostly white Akron educators.

This school year, Akron Public Schools teachers and counselors have filed 22 grievances over the way the district has handled disciplinary action for students they say committed verbal or physical assault against them.

Of the 23 students involved in the grievances, 21 of them — 91 percent — were black, while two were white.

In contrast, black students make up 46 percent of the district’s student population; 34 percent of students are white.

Of the 21 teachers and counselors who filed grievances, all are white except one, who is Latina.

About 87 percent of the district’s educators are white.

“The teachers are the ones who drive this process,” district spokesman Mark Williamson said. “It starts with the way they look at these kids, and then they send it over to the hearing officer.”

Williamson said despite the fact that “the numbers look lopsided,” the district is always trying to add diversity by recruiting in minority publications, going to job fairs and more.

A dispute over student discipline and contract wording between the Akron Board of Education and teachers union heated up this week when hundreds of teachers protested before the regular board meeting about what they say is an increase in classroom assaults with improper disciplinary action taken by the administration.

“We absolutely disagree that this has anything to do with the racial element. We’re talking about behavior, about assaults on teachers,” said Akron Education Association President Pat Shipe, who questioned why the administration would share student data on race if it isn’t an issue educators raised in their grievances.

In continuing their education to renew their licenses, some teachers elect to take cultural competency classes to understand better the lives many of their at-risk students live, Shipe said.

Since 2014, the district has been providing cultural competency training to all new hires and existing staff on days the students have off.

Shipe takes issue with focusing on the 2 percent of students whose bad behavior has already cost others the opportunity to learn. “Many in the [other] 98 percent are from single-parent or low-income households. And again, we’re going to celebrate the vast majority of students who come to school to learn and are having their education stolen from them for all the hours teachers spend dealing with these egregious behaviors. We’re not talking about everyday behaviors.”

The issue of discipline and race is one the district — and schools nationwide — has been facing for years.

The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights found in 2014 that black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended and expelled from school.

That leads to fewer black students in school and more involved in trouble, feeding into a cycle known as the “school to prison pipeline.”

“Suspending them isn’t solving the problem. It’s contributing to it and making it worse,” said Raymond Greene Jr., the founder of the Northeast Ohio branch of My Brother’s Keeper, an initiative launched by former President Barack Obama to address opportunity gaps faced by African-American males.

The district has tried to cut back on suspension rates over the past few years to alleviate that problem, and to keep more kids in school in general. However, as assaults on teachers continue, that has only led to more contention between the administration that dictates discipline and the teachers union.

“I have all the empathy in the world for teachers ... but I also believe you know what you signed up for,” Greene said. “If these kids are scaring you, that is a problem.”

Misbehavior or bias

So far this school year, 114 assaults have been reported. The racial makeup of the assaults is similar to those in the grievances — 83 percent of students disciplined are black, while 17 percent are white.

Of the 114 students referred to the Board of Education for discipline, a hearing officer found that 14 did not rise to the level of a verbal or physical assault. Of the 14 cases, 11 were black, one white and two biracial.

Superintendent David James said the district has projected the number of assaults to occur by the end of the year, and the numbers appear to be trending upward.

But James doesn’t think the numbers tell the whole story.

“I think we’re seeing an increase in things that aren’t really assaults ... We might have to look at some offerings for staff to help in classroom management,” James said.

Joshua Grundy, 19, sees both sides of the issue.

Grundy leads a youth mentoring program in Akron called Mendia. He currently is working on getting his GED because he dropped out of Akron Public Schools when he was 16. He said he was disciplined frequently in school, having to move to at least two elementary schools before being placed in Akron Alternative Academy for middle school.

Grundy said he had a lot of anger stemming from issues at home, which led to him acting out in school — skipping homework and class, getting into fights with kids and talking back to teachers, which eventually lead to a case of verbal assault that got him kicked out of school.

“My anger at home, it was just brought into the school, and I knew there were certain things I could get away with,” Grundy said.

Grundy said it’s a reality that a lot of African-American males face, as many don’t have father figures or other positive black mentors.

But sometimes, their time in the classroom is no more encouraging. Grundy said he thinks some white teachers assume on first impression that their African-American students will act out in class, leading them to treat black and white students with different expectations from the start.

“I feel like it’s kind of expected out of us. ... Then the teacher will spend more time with the kid who she thinks is gonna do good. It’s only gonna push a student back as far as self-esteem goes,” Grundy said. “Since the black males in this society are already labeled, once they walk in some place where they’re new ... they’re already labeled before they get to that direction they want to go.”

Students with disabilities, who also are disproportionately disciplined, can present even more challenges.

Nine of the 22 grievances filed over discipline involve a student with disabilities, three of which are considered to have severe disabilities.

James said the district has to follow different protocol when disciplining students with disabilities.

“You have to look and see, was the behavior a manifestation of a kid’s special needs?” James said. “You have to look at each one of these cases separately.”

The U.S. Department of Education found that more than one out of four boys of color with disabilities are suspended at least once in their scholastic career.

Solutions

Greene from My Brother’s Keeper said teachers establishing relationships with students and letting kids know they care is the key to reducing discipline and misbehavior. But there is room for improvement from all parties.

“The community needs to be more involved in the school system, and teachers need to be more involved in the community,” Greene said. “This is everybody’s problem.”

A new committee that the board of education is forming plans to take a look at all the issues at hand — how to manage misbehavior in the classroom, how to discipline students who do misbehave and how to handle teachers’ grievances.

Board of education member Tim Miller is chairing the organization of the committee and hopes to have it formed by April. Miller said he wants it to be a community effort, involving people from juvenile justice, the faith community, the city, the union and others.

He said looking closer at the issues of inequity will “certainly be a part of it.”

“One thing this is not going to be is administration bashing teachers or teachers bashing administration,” Miller said. “Hopefully we do find something we can constructively work on and help these students that need help.”

Staff writer Doug Livingston contributed to this report. Theresa Cottom can be reached at 330-996-3216 or tcottom@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @Theresa_Cottom.