Akron Public Schools needs to enforce real solutions to behavior issues

When I was in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades, teachers often pulled me into the hallway, had me bend over and put my hands on my knees. They then whacked me (as students called it) with a one-by-four wooden paddle that looked like a short cricket bat. Some paddles had Swiss-cheese-like holes to increase pain.

Apparently policies and procedures on giving or receiving whacks were left solely to the discretion of teachers. My parents were never told by the school, nor certainly by me, that I’d been whacked.

What militaristic school did I attend? Milton-Union Public Schools, a rural district 20 miles northwest of Dayton. As for my offenses, which I repeated year after year? Whispering with and passing notes to friends.

Ohio rightly outlawed corporal punishment in public schools in 2009. Being beaten by teachers did not make me a better student, it made me a sneakier one who distrusted most teachers. Only appropriate consequences are effective. That is, when they are enforced.

Teaching has always been hard work, requiring not just a set of skills, but an intensity of mental focus and compassion for students. Think back on your favorite teachers. I’ll wager they cared deeply for their pupils as well as the subjects they taught.

My high school civics teacher, who was also the wrestling coach, worked construction before getting his teaching degree. He thought teaching would be a breeze compared to physical labor. After his first full day in the classroom, he was more exhausted than he’d ever been in his life.

At the same time, misbehaving students have been around as long as there have been schools. One hundred years ago, the little kids in the Our Gang short films were regularly making mayhem in classrooms. Later, movies such as “Blackboard Jungle” (1955) and “To Sir with Love” (1967) resonated because the troubled students and exasperated teachers depicted were familiar to many communities.

At the time of this writing, Akron Public School teachers are set to strike on Monday, Jan. 9.

Today’s teachers continue to work hard — harder than you can imagine if you’ve not recently spent time in a school building. I have observed this firsthand in the classrooms of my children and while working as a substitute teacher and tutor this fall in both high school and elementary buildings in Akron Public Schools.

A vote and survey by teachers union members indicated their biggest issues were school safety and student discipline. One particular issue is how “assault” is defined in the union contract.

The administration wanted to replace “contact” with “injury” in the teacher contract language as a way to determine physical assault. 

The research is clear: The policies and programs that reduce behavior problems in public schools only work when school administrations fully support their implementation and continuation.

‘Increasingly not safe’:Akron schools’ staff members say student misbehavior on the rise

Consider cellphones. In response to teacher complaints about students on their phones, the district has told the media that it has a “power down” policy during classroom instruction.

So how does the district’s administration support teachers when students refuse to power down their phones? They don’t.

I was told by several high school teachers that there is nothing to be done about cellphones because the students’ parents call and complain if the phones are taken away. Students scrolled through social media, listened to music with one ear bud and texted while I tried, emphasis on tried, to teach.

I have yet to meet the person busy on a cellphone who can fully comprehend what someone standing next to them is saying.

Without consequences, APS’s cellphone “power down” policy is meaningless.

In 2019, Ohio passed a law that allows any board of education to decide whether to permit students to have cellphones in class.

At the start of this school year, Dayton Public Schools, a city district with demographics similar to Akron’s, required high school students to “put their phones, headphones and watches in a pouch that locks down the phone. The student can keep their devices with them if they are in the pouch. At the end of the school day, kids can release their phones.”

This pouch technology, from a company called Yondr, has been in use in Dayton’s middle schools for several years. According to Lee McClory, the Dayton Daily News’s education reporter, parents, who were informed they had other ways to contact their kids, have not complained about this successful policy.

The Dayton Public Schools administration and school board listened to their faculty and staff and sought a solution that supports teachers and benefits instruction. With this kind of engagement, solving the problem of cellphones in the classrooms turned out to be, as I say to my students, easy-peasy.

Which begs the question, why is the APS administration and school board deflecting the reality of what goes on in its classrooms, even trying to water down the definition of assault, instead of seeking successful solutions? They don’t even have to look far, but they do need to look.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, January 8, 2023.


Revisiting 2022’s columns

In my final column of 2021, I speculated that COVID, climate change and the continued existence of democracy were issues the world would grapple with in 2022.

While COVID has become more manageable, minimized exposure to seasonal illnesses over the past two years has made our immune systems easier targets. Flu viruses and RSV are filling hospitals this year much like COVID did the past two.

Still, we’ve come a long way. Last December, the Omicron variant was making its U.S. debut, shutting down many public places and forcing vulnerable populations to shelter at home yet again.

Baby steps continue worldwide in the effort to address climate change and protect democracy. For now, the environment and essential democratic institutions, such as free and fair elections, remain vulnerable.

Here are updates on other topics I wrote about this year:

Book Banning

Book banning continues to grow, which does little to nothing to prevent students from finding said books. What it does, as it always has, is put a spotlight on certain books, causing sales of those books to explode. I purchased several of the most banned books this year, both for myself and others. It felt great.

However, the majority of books parents have had banned from schools are about LGBTQ people and people of color. Banning these books tells children who are not white and/or heterosexual that their stories do not belong in our libraries and, by extension, our communities. Which is a cruel way to also tell these children that they themselves do not belong in our communities.

Putin’s War

Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine is a horrific example of power consolidated in a supreme leader. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of Ukraine being forced into the Soviet Union. The world was not paying attention then. This time it is.

The spirit, tenacity and humanity of the Ukrainian people, so exemplified in my friend Allah, whom I wrote about soon after the war began, has done much to garner international support for this country fighting an unprovoked and illegal attack on its sovereignty.

But even with support, tens of thousands of Ukrainians and at least 100,000 Russians have died for one man’s delusions. Furthermore, cities and infrastructure that Ukrainian civilians rely upon for their existence continue to be targeted by Putin.

I pray that this time next year the story of Ukraine will be of its great postwar rebuilding.

Inclusion over ableism

I wrote multiple pieces on equal access and, therefore, equal rights for the disabled. My journey with my daughter, Lyra, a 10-year-old who has Down syndrome, has taught me much. In my lifetime, disability rights have progressed tremendously, yet much work remains.

Lyra’s father sold his house in Akron this fall and bought a new one in Copley so we can have another educational option. At the same time, Lyra was placed for the first time in SAIL (Students Achieving Independent Learning), a newer program at Akron Public Schools for some intellectually disabled students.

Lyra has been so successful in SAIL, we cannot imagine her attending school elsewhere. This is an important reminder that quality public schools are an anchor in keeping people of all socioeconomic levels from leaving cities when they have children.

Justice for all

Akron’s racial disparities and relations were on international display in 2022. As protests were occurring over the police shooting death of Jayland Walker, I wrote about three young Black men spending what ended up being two months in jail.

The three were playing basketball on June 2 in a fenced-in court that has only one usable entrance. They were attacked by four Firestone students with water pellet guns designed to look and sound like automatic rifles. A fight broke out. One of the Firestone four fell back, hit his head and died from a broken occipital bone.

After hearing the account of that night’s events from the Firestone students who’d initiated the attack, the police chief and mayor promoted a misleading narrative. When more information came to light, the three in jail had their bail amounts dramatically reduced and were quickly released.

In October, Donovan Jones, one of the three basketball players, pleaded no contest and was convicted of a first-degree misdemeanor. A trial for the other two will likely occur in February.

Why does Jones have a criminal record for defending himself when the three remaining Firestone students have not been charged for attacking Jones?

Access to museums

After I wrote about Museums for All, a program that facilitates modest fee admissions to museums for families who receive food stamps, I heard from one of my favorite librarians at Akron-Summit County Public Library.

Barb White was the head librarian at the Highland Square branch when my big boys were growing up. Today she’s a deputy director of our fabulous library system. She wrote to tell me that people who do not qualify for food stamps but still cannot afford museum fees can visit area cultural institutions without breaking the bank:

The “Akron-Summit County Library circulates museum passes as part of its Library of Things, and we anticipate increasing the number and variety of museum passes as [our] budget allows. Here’s the link to our Library of Things: https://www.akronlibrary.org/books-more/library-of-things The Museum passes can be found under ‘Recreational.’ ”

As there is a wait for the library passes, it requires planning a visit in advance.


I try to respond to all letters from readers (except those from trolls, naturally). I usually do so right away, but sometimes it takes a few days or weeks.

I was alarmed, therefore, when I accidentally discovered this fall that Gmail was sending many emails from readers to my spam folder. I presume this has been the case for the entire six-plus years I’ve been writing for the Beacon.

I now check my spam folder regularly, but if you never heard back from me and wondered why, that is probably the reason (unless, of course, you’re a troll).

Also note, if you write me an old-fashioned letter with pen and paper and send it to the Beacon’s offices, it will take several days to a few weeks to get to me, but it will get to me.

Thank you, readers. May 2023 bring peace and wisdom to us all.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on December 25, 2022.

Lyra's Latests · Uncategorized

Alzheimer’s research in people with Down syndrome benefits all

The first year of my daughter’s life felt like graduate school on all things Down syndrome (DS). Shortly before her first birthday, I attended the Down Syndrome Congress annual convention where I learned about many interventions and supports that would maximize her potential to live a full — and possibly independent — life. 

Holly Christensen:SAIL program a great success in Akron Public Schools

At that 2013 convention, I knew several other mothers. We had met on a Down Syndrome Diagnosis Network’s closed Facebook group for mothers. The groups are organized by the ages of their children with DS. Many of us were meeting each other, as well as many of our babies, in person for the first time. 

Information, while powerful, can also be intimidating. With a panicked look on her face, a mother approached me in a hallway and told me she’d just learned that our children would inevitably develop dementia in their 50s.  

In one moment, everything I’d envisioned for my daughter’s life suddenly felt like a large steamship moving out to sea, getting smaller and smaller. 

The life expectancy of a baby born with Down syndrome in the 1980s was 25. Today it is 61 and continues to climb. As the number of people with Down syndrome living into old age increased, it became evident that 80% to 90% of those older than 50 exhibited signs of dementia. 

In the same four decades, research on Alzheimer’s has increased substantially, including in the DS population. We now know that by their 40s the brains of people with DS will have acquired the pathologies, or physical changes, for Alzheimer’s (such as amyloid plaques) with most becoming symptomatic in their 50s. 

I recently interviewed Dr. Elizabeth Head, a neuropathology core co-investigator at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at University of California Irvine. While she collaborates with researchers studying Alzheimer’s in the general population, her research is focused specifically on the Down syndrome population. 

This win-win approach, in which anything learned about Alzheimer’s by either research team benefits everyone, is encouraging. But what about treatments unique to people with DS? Will today’s research yield treatments and therapies that will minimize my daughter’s likelihood of developing dementia? 

Dr. Head’s answer is a cautiously optimistic yes. Her team and others are conducting longitudinal studies, in which volunteers with Down syndrome participate for many years, discovering relevant data that are the building blocks for future treatments.  

Using biomaterial from the DownSyndrome Achieves biobank at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, the many scientists in Dr. Head’s team look for biomarkers to identify who is on the trajectory to developing dementia and — just as important — who is not. Only the DSA biobank is open to all qualified researchers and not specific to one institution. 

Dr. Head’s observational studies, as well as others occurring around the world, suggest that 10% to 15% of people with DS are resistant to dementia even when the brain pathologies associated with dementia are present. 

“Knowing which brain proteins may be involved, we can then perhaps develop interventions and some of those interventions will be more effective based upon the age of the person,” Dr. Head said. “What works for someone in their 40s might not work well for someone in their 30s.” 

In recent years, scientists have determined that the brain remains plastic throughout our lives, including in old age. This means that there isn’t an age for which potential interventions for improved cognition should no longer be studied. 

Perhaps the best news from Dr. Head is that just because a family didn’t begin interventions for their loved one with DS as a baby or small child does not mean that person is on a trajectory for something bad later.  

Many studies looking at treatments for Alzheimer’s in people with DS are occurring now, with more in the works. There is great promise that in the coming decades a diagnosis of DS will no longer mean that dementia is nearly inevitable.  

There is also a growing body of research that, as with the general population, lifestyle choices can minimize the likelihood of a person with DS developing dementia. These lifestyle choices, which can be implemented today, include a nutritious diet, exercise, rich social interactions and continuous learning.  

Dr. Head encourages families to include simple exercises like walking daily, eating nutrient-rich foods and having adults with DS continue to learn new skills. She suggests taking classes, such as cooking (another way to increase healthy meal options) or learning to play an instrument. 

“Nothing should be held back from people with Down syndrome,” Dr. Head said.  

The donation of biomaterial of people with Down syndrome, such as blood, is modestly painful but significantly impacts the work of Dr. Head and her team as well as other DS researchers around the world. I strongly encourage people with DS to donate biomaterial for this and other research.  

Families know how hard their loved ones with Down syndrome work from the first day of life. Their levels of cognition and independence have the potential to be maintained throughout life by supporting the important and exciting research occurring today. 

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, December 11, 2022.