AKRON, Ohio — Akron Public Schools teachers are raising concerns over violence in their buildings and criticizing the administration for not doing enough to protect students and educators.
News 5 spoke with seven teachers, a school counselor, a tutor, and the president of the Akron Education Association, which represents approximately 2,700 educators, including about 1,800 teachers.
Superintendent Christine Fowler Mack also sat down for her first interview since Akron teachers overwhelmingly rejected a fact finder's recommendations for a new contract, setting the stage for mediation and the potential for a teachers strike.
Many of the teachers have expressed frustration and fear over assaults against them as well as a recent string of high-profile violent or concerning incidents at different schools.
"It can't just be a game of violent Whack-A-Mole. That's really what it's become," said Lisa Yanchek, a 6th grade teacher at Seiberling Community Learning Center.
"It's something we continue to see across our district, and it's so concerning for our staff members," said Dan Richards, a school counselor at Garfield High School.
On Monday, a loaded gun was found inside a backpack belonging to a 7th-grade boy at Litchfield Middle School. The weapon was discovered after other students reported rumors about the gun in the building.
A student was stabbed in a bathroom on November 4 at Firestone High School. Another student was stabbed inside Buchtel High School on November 30.
The schools activated lockdowns until the buildings were determined to be safe. Police said the injuries were not life-threatening. A student was arrested in the Firestone incident. The Buchtel stabbing remains under investigation, police said.
During interviews at the Akron Education Association union hall, some of the teachers cried as they explained why they are becoming increasingly worried.
"I do not want to go to work and wonder: Is that kid going to get that gun through the door?" said John Watts, a STEM teacher at Hyre Middle School.
All of the teachers, including Yanchek, said the majority of the students are great kids, but she fought through tears while criticizing the administration.
"I love my kids. They are amazing, but this administration has normalized abnormal behavior. They have found ways to justify the unjustifiable. I'm tired, mentally exhausted before I even go to work," Yanchek said.
Erin Saal, a social studies teacher at Firestone High, said concern over violence is disrupting the learning process, and she feels teachers are "not being supported by downtown."
"You leave work and wonder, well, what's going to happen tomorrow? You get up in the morning and wonder what's going to happen today?" Saal said.
AEA officials received multiple cell phone videos from students, parents and teachers that captured intense fighting last month among students in multiple schools.
Some of the videos, which were provided to News 5 by the union, show two girls throwing punches outside of a Buchtel High School classroom as a teacher gets pushed around trying to break it up, a boy at East High School getting repeatedly hit, knocked to the ground and kicked in a hallway, and a female student at Hyre Middle School wailing on another girl and then dragging her across the gym floor by her hair.
APS spokesman Mark Williamson confirmed the district has also received the videos, which will be reviewed through investigations to determine potential disciplinary action.
"This happens all the time where we have students that they create an environment that's not safe for all of our wonderful students," said George Niinisto, a teacher at Hyre Middle School.
The teachers stressed it's not just students who are getting hurt.
According to Pat Shipe, the president of AEA, 63 assaults against teachers have been reported this school year. Due to privacy issues, the nature of the assaults and the extent of any injuries in most of the incidents were not readily available to News 5.
However, 70-year-old Pam Toppin, a tutor at Seiberling Community Learning Center, said that she was knocked to the ground and dazed when two sixth graders got into a fight in the classroom.
"As they were starting to fight, they came by and pushed me to the ground," Toppin said. "I went to the emergency room. I have a sprained back and sprained neck."
Several teachers believe the district is not following the current contract and the code of student behavior when it comes to applying consequences, such as expulsions or suspensions.
"Those students, yes, they'll get a small discipline, but then they're right back. There's no legitimate follow-through from this administration," said Alana Treen, a world history teacher at East High School.
Shipe said concern over safety is the primary reason that 99% of teachers voted to reject the fact finder's contract recommendations.
Mediation sessions are scheduled for next week in an effort to avert a possible teachers strike.
"They're desensitizing severe and violent behavior, and we're at a breaking point, and teachers are leaving this profession. They're leaving this district," Shipe said.
One of the sticking points during the negotiations has been the definition of a physical assault against a teacher.
The district wants to replace the word "contact" with "injury" for an incident to be considered an assault. The union objects to the change.
In a news release dated December 6, Shipe criticized Fowler Mack for an "absolute absence of leadership."
"We believe that many Akron Public School buildings continue to be places of fear, chaos and mismanagement by Superintendent Fowler Mack and her administration due to the desire to protect the superintendent's image over and above the desire to protect the children and staff of APS," Shipe said.
In an interview from APS headquarters, Fowler Mack said she was disappointed by the sharp comments.
"It's disappointing— and especially to make this a referendum on my leadership— around a topic at which I've really worked aggressively and focused on as a priority coming through the door," Fowler Mack said.
Fowler Mack said she shares the concerns of educators and the community about school safety and doesn't want teachers "to have the extra emotional burdens of feeling unsafe in their working environments."
"I would say to those teachers, we care deeply and we are working tirelessly," Fowler Mack said.
As it relates to disciplinary action, Fowler Mack said an expulsion review committee, which is comprised of administrators and teachers, has been "working effectively."
Data provided by the district shows there were 249 disciplinary hearings in the first quarter with five students expelled. Some 132 students received various disciplinary action, including alternatives to expulsion, alternative placement, interim alternative placement and transfer to another school, and 112 students were returned to their schools.
According to Williamson, one student, a 14-year-old at Buchtel High School, was expelled by the superintendent last week for an assault on a teacher.
"We are holding kids accountable in strong ways," Fowler Mack added. "I would say I feel like we're pretty strong on reinforcing high expectations, especially when it comes to the safety of our staff members."
After the gun was found at Litchfield Middle School, Fowler Mack announced the use of metal detectors was expanding from a random to a routine basis.
More security upgrades will be discussed at next Monday's board meeting, she said.
"We are adding some more current technology, so we will be upgrading the technology that we have around metal detectors," Fowler Mack said.
Fowler Mack said a metal detector wasn't used on the day the gun was found at Litchfield. It's not clear why the knives weren't detected prior to the stabbings at Firestone and Buchtel, but the superintendent believes better technology will help prevent weapons from getting into the schools in the future.
Fowler Mack said she understands the district has not "exhausted everything that's possible" when it comes to solutions to the violence in schools and welcomes input from the community.
"We need to keep acting. We need to keep listening," she said.
Mediation sessions between the administration and AEA are scheduled for Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Fowler Mack said she's hopeful an agreement can be reached but will also prepare for the possibility of a strike. Akron teachers have not gone on strike since 1989.
"I really don't want to think about that, but we'll be prepared for any next step with students as or priority," she said.
While both sides continue to discuss how to hammer out an agreement, teachers like Yanchek said they'll continue go to work — but with frightening questions in their minds.
"Where is the violence going to brew? Where is going to explode?" she said. "Teaching takes a mental toll. It shouldn't take a physical toll."
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