Last school year was among the most heartbreaking and frightening nine months in Stark County school history.
School leaders buried 25 students or recent graduates, including roughly a dozen of them who died by suicide. One student plotted to kill his fellow classmates before deciding to turn the gun on himself. Threats of violence bombarded nearly every local school district, and more than 1,500 Stark County children were taken to nearby hospitals for mental health concerns. School leaders and staff didn’t know what to do.
Behind the scenes, Joe Chaddock was on the phone helping them navigate beyond the fear.
Chaddock, the superintendent of the Stark County Educational Service Center, clocked many 18-hour days as he helped bring two national suicide experts to Stark County and brought school leaders, law enforcement, mental health and health officials together to determine how best to secure local school buildings as well as address the underlying student mental health issues.
Chaddock and a contingent of local superintendents also convinced state leaders to rewrite a state law so educational service centers could, on behalf of participating member districts, seek a property tax levy dedicated for school security and mental health services. While the levy failed in Stark County, Chaddock and other community leaders say the effort was successful because it at least got the conversation started about the need to address student safety and wellbeing.
For all that and more, Chaddock has been named About magazine’s 2019 Person of the Year. Selected by About staff, the award is an annual honor that recognizes someone who has helped move the community forward or who has inspired the community with their story.
Chaddock, 46, and his high school sweetheart (and wife of 22 years), Susan, live on a mini farm in Minerva with their four children: Ellie, a senior at the University of Mount Union who is studying to be a teacher; Jay, a freshman at Ohio State University who is studying business; Luke, a junior at Minerva High School; and Nick, a freshman at Minerva High School.
Their house sits a few miles from Chaddock’s parents. His older brother, Gary, and younger sister, Kristy, also live nearby. Chaddock guesses he speaks to either his parents or siblings at least once a day, and they typically gather at least once a month for some type of celebration.
“I’m the luckiest person because of family, from parents to siblings to spouse and kids,” Chaddock said. “I’m just lucky to have such a support network.”
Chaddock, who had considered being a chef, chose to pursue a career in education after watching his older brother take the path to become a teacher and wrestling coach.
“I always loved being around kids and working with kids,” said Chaddock, a two-time NBC wrestling champion and Senate League champion who finished second at the state wrestling tournament in 1991 and fifth in 1990. “And I wanted to make a difference.”
The 1991 Minerva High School graduate earned his bachelor’s degree in education with a minor in psychology from the University of Mount Union in 1995 and obtained a master’s degree in educational administration from Ashland University.
He took a job as a seventh-grade science teacher and wrestling coach at Perry Local School District and figured he’d spend his career there.
But others had bigger plans for him.
After five years of teaching, Chaddock raced up the administrative ranks. In just 11 years, he was promoted from assistant middle school principal to junior high principal to director of business operations and then to assistant superintendent/curriculum director at Perry.
He became Minerva Local Schools’ superintendent in 2011, and then joined the Stark County Educational Service Center in 2013 as deputy superintendent, becoming superintendent in August 2015.
Chaddock credits his colleagues for any of the successes he’s had.
“You are only as successful as the people you surround yourself with,” he said, citing every staff position from bus driver to custodian to teacher to secretary. “It doesn’t matter what I know, or any superintendent or any principal knows, you are only as good as the people who are dealing day to day with our kids.”
At the ESC
As Stark County ESC superintendent, Chaddock oversees the R.G. Drage Career Technical Center in Massillon and roughly 500 employees whose duties touch nearly every aspect of the ESC’s 22-member districts in Stark, Summit, Carroll, Tuscarawas and Wayne counties.
Chaddock also often is a sounding board for other school leaders, including his brother, Gary, who succeeded Joe as superintendent of Minerva Local Schools.
“I call him a lot, as do all the superintendents, just to run ideas, problems or situations by him,” Gary Chaddock said. “He’s a good problem solver and excellent at thinking outside the box.”
Marty Bowe, who has worked with Joe Chaddock for more than a decade at Perry and the Stark County ESC, said much of the work Chaddock has done over the past year to foster relationships with law enforcement entities, mental health service providers, local hospitals, health officials and other community outreach programs continues to yield positive results.
“What you see now a year later are partnerships that have never been as strong as they are now,” said Bowe, former Perry Local Schools superintendent who now is an assistant superintendent at the Stark County ESC. “We’ve never worked this closely together that I can remember. And it’s all good for kids because the problems are real, and we have to change as a society as the world our kids are in is changing.”
Much of the training the educational service center has provided to local school districts over the past year has focused on helping employees understand the challenges facing students today, from bullying on social media to mental health issues.
“Our biggest challenge moving forward is how do we combat this digital age to make sure our kids are still building meaningful relationships and doing the right things,” said Chaddock, noting that law enforcement officials have found that social media interactions peak in Stark County between midnight and 4 a.m. on school nights.
He hopes to use whatever prestige he gains from the Person of the Year honor to highlight the importance of families working with their local school officials to create a welcoming environment that might help prevent a repeat of what the county experienced last school year.
“Parents have to work with the school; we have to be a team,” he said. “Not adversarial. We want the same thing they want.”