A small percentage of students can give any school or district a bad name. And that is the frustration and the challenge of Akron Public Schools administrators, who point out that 80 percent to 90 percent of their students have little or no trouble at all following school rules. All the same, the ones who did get into trouble racked up enough violations to put Akron once again near the top of districts with the highest incidence of student discipline in Ohio.
Schools are required by state law to enforce zero-tolerance policies for violent, disruptive or inappropriate behavior. They have leeway to determine what such behavior is. They also are required to report each instance a student is removed from normal instruction as a result of an infraction.
It is crucial that districts maintain an orderly environment in which teachers and students are assured of personal safety and good conditions for learning. It takes unchecked bad behavior from one student or two to harm an entire class. Thus, a stress on discipline is not misplaced. Still, a valid concern is that it not be applied in ways that are simply punitive or disproportionate in effect.
A study last fall by the Childrenís Defense Fund-Ohio and the Ohio Poverty Law Center found that students with emotional and other disabilities or who are African-American or are economically disadvantaged generally are subject to more out-of-school suspensions. The Akron Public Schools reflects the statewide reality. But the high rate of disciplinary actions, particularly for African-American students, raises questions about whether the districtís conception of unacceptable behavior is too broad, snagging students who may need tutoring in public behavior or lack skills to respond appropriately to stresses at home and at school.
It is the reality, too, that disruptive and violent behaviors in schools reflect the larger society. School officials concede correctly that in addition to programs such as Strive, the Akron Opportunity Center and the Phoenix School that focus on students with discipline problems, a necessary course is to build community partnerships that offer students the support they need to achieve. A sense of accomplishment in itself can improve behavior.