AKRON, Ohio — Jennifer Morales worked in the restaurant industry for 20 years, but when a job opened up as the culinary arts teacher at Kenmore-Garfield High School in Akron, she jumped at the chance.
"I just thought that it was the perfect scenario to try and make a difference in that next generation, get them before they have bad habits," Morales said.
Morales, who has been teaching for two years, said she loves working with the kids, but has been feeling on edge after she was punched by a student and suffered a broken nose.
'If you've ever been punched in the face, it hurts. My eyes were black and blue," Morales told News 5 during an interview at the Akron Education Association's union hall.
AEA President Pat Shipe has been monitoring disturbing videos, posted on social media, showing multiple students punching each other inside Kenmore-Garfield High. The melees have taken place in classrooms, hallways, the cafeteria and the auditorium.
"It is very hard to watch. It breaks my heart," Shipe said.
On October 21, Morales went to the auditorium to talk to an administrator about an issue with another student.
A short time later, about eight girls started throwing punches.
"It was chaos," she said.
Initially, the teacher stayed back, but as the fight continued, she stepped in and tried to help.
"The crowd kind of pushed us down and since I was in the front, I went down on the ground and that's when I was struck by a newcomer to the party," Morales said.
Morales took a week off after she was hurt, but has returned to the classroom. She received supportive emails from other students, including one that really touched her.
"He told me he wouldn't blame me if I didn't come back, but he really hoped that I did and that brought me to tears," she said.
The student accused of punching Morales has been charged with assault. She has been suspended, but a decision on whether she will be expelled is pending a hearing, according to Shipe.
Andrea Heinl, a music teacher, said she was also assaulted by a young student about a month ago inside Ritzman Elementary School. Heinl said she was punched in the back by a disruptive boy. Heinl filed a staff physical assault report.
"It hurt enough that my back hurt for a week and I met with my doctor to make sure everything was okay," Heinl said.
Heinl said the same student punched a pregnant woman in the stomach earlier in the school year, an incident that also resulted in a staff physical assault report.
Heinl said the student was not suspended for hitting her, but he did get a suspension for the first incident. Heinl said the boy struck her on his first day back from his suspension.
"The student is still in the building and the behaviors are still continuing," Heinl said.
Dan Richards, a school counselor at Kenmore-Garfield, said he's troubled that students were caught with two guns in the school in October. The first gun was found on Oct. 20 and the second was located on Oct. 26. Both weapons were found in backpacks, according to police reports.
"Many teachers, many practitioners, in our building are clamoring for regular and daily metal detectors in our building," Richards said.
According to Akron police, one of the guns was loaded and both students are facing weapons charges. One student has been expelled and the other has a pending hearing, according to Shipe.
The teachers stressed they understand the pandemic is creating pressures and that most of the kids are good students in schools to learn.
"I just want to be able to teach my classes. I love teaching. I love my students," Heinl said.
This week, AEA passed a resolution of "no confidence" in Akron Public Schools Office of Student Support Services, including its director, Dan Rambler, and a hearing officer.
Shipe contends the district is frequently not following the code of student behavior spelled out in the contract when it comes to handing down consequences for serious offenses.
"We've seen instances of physical assault on teachers that absolutely should have resulted in expulsion," Richards said.
Morales believes teachers and building administrators need to be "more in the loop" with what's happening with discipline.
"There's a lot of concern not just with the adults, but with the students as well," Morales said.
On Friday afternoon, Akron Public Schools provided this statement to News 5 in response to the reports of violence and the actions taken in the first quarter at the district's schools:
Violent and disruptive behaviors in school continue to be concerns we share and something we have never tolerated in the Akron Public Schools.
The vast majority (95%) of APS students are meeting our high expectations for good behavior, and the relatively few students who have posed a risk to the safety of others this year have faced serious consequences, including expulsion and arrest.
What we know with certainty, is that some kids fight outside and inside of school. But we also know that the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports employed at APS, have actually decreased the number of assaults over the years.
The two incidents where weapons were found and confiscated in our schools this year are also rare and consistent with low levels in prior years (0-1%), due to increased safety measures in our schools.
APS has been appropriately and aggressively addressing students not meeting our behavior expectations since the beginning of the school year with staff, teachers’ union, and student input.
It is clear that anxieties are high and we, like other communities and districts, will continue to work to address the root causes of student behavior and the needs of all students.
The district also provided the data below on suspensions and referrals in 2021, compared to previous years.