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.