Friday, January 25, 2008

Change the dinner-table conversation

By Elisa Cramer

Palm Beach Post Editorial Writer

Friday, January 25, 2008

The statistics can be overwhelming. Low graduation rates, high incarceration rates. Low wages, high health-care expenses.

In 2006, more than 50 percent of black males in grades three through five scored below grade level on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test in math and reading. In middle school, more than 65 percent were below grade level. More than 84''percent of black males in ninth and 10th grades performed below grade level in reading, almost 60''percent in math.

Considering that - and the fact that state data show black youth are more likely to be suspended than whites - it is less surprising that only half of black males in Florida graduate from high school.

"Florida has one of the highest percentages of African-American juveniles over-represented at every stage of the juvenile justice system," according to the Blueprint Commission of the Florida Department of Juvenile justice. "Nearly seven of 10 youth in secure confinement are minority juveniles."

Such disparities are apparent in every area the state's Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys considered over the past year: economics, education, foster care, health, crime.

The council was charged by law with proposing "measures to alleviate and correct the underlying causes of the conditions." The result is an 84-page report (available at that proposes so many measures that I fear it will become just another icon cluttering a legislator's virtual desktop.

I hope that won't be the case, but consider the issues discussed around the dinner table, with neighbors, with co-workers. Consider the issues topping political agendas. Do school suspensions, black-owned businesses, adoption, juvenile detention, mentoring dominate?

The council's ability to draw experts, activists and concerned citizens together to plan an attack on such dismal conditions is laudable. But without elected leaders sharing the council's sense of urgency about homicide rates, arrest and incarceration rates, poverty, violence, disparate annual income levels, school performance and health issues of black men and boys, the council's work will be for naught.

If not out of a sense of humanity, the state should care about this segment of the population for economic reasons. The council's recommendations include:

Reestablishing the Governor's Ex-Offender Task Force, which recommended better job-training and substance-abuse services to help rehabilitate inmates; and automatically restoring the rights of ex-felons, enabling them to get a state license to become a nail specialist, beautician, nurse or construction-business owner.

Investing in preventive health care.

Expanding the Independent Living program aimed at preparing foster youth for adulthood.

Reviewing zero-tolerance policies in schools to reduce the number of youth referred to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
Some recommendations require money: $250,000 is being requested in the next budget year to hire an executive director, set up local councils in each of Florida's 67 counties (reaching families, churches and community groups) and make the council a permanent commission (now, it's scheduled to sunset by 2011). "The council is aware of the budget crisis the state of Florida is facing," the report says, "however, to do nothing would be to continue to allow the underlying conditions negatively affecting Black men and boys to exist."

If the past is any guide, the Legislature will meet somewhere between doing nothing and spending a quarter-million dollars. The council has relied on staff from the attorney general's office and has met mostly by conference calls. The council concedes, "The information in this report may seem disheartening," but promises "there is hope."

In 2005-06, there were 10,075 black boys in the state's child welfare system and 42,174 black males in Florida's prisons. In 2006-07, there were 47,608 black males enrolled in Florida's community colleges, state universities and private campuses.

For the state to begin the council's many doable recommendations, the Legislature and Gov. Crist - and all Floridians - must make improving the status of black men and boys a priority.

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