MANATEE -- State audit findings that the Manatee School District has been over-identifying black males as having emotional-behaviorial disabilities and failing to provide proper documentation on how those identifications were made have prompted district officials to make major changes.
Black students in Manatee County are five times more likely than other students to be identified as having emotional-behaviorial disabilities, according to a 2013 Florida Department of Education profile. That compares with black students statewide who were twice as likely to be identified as having EBD.
Under a proposed reorganization, Manatee school parent liaisons, now responsible for handling student discipline, would be reslotted as behavior technicians to work with exceptional student education, according to Diana Green, deputy superintendent. And deans, also responsible for discipline, would be added to administrative staff at schools.
The behavior techs, funded under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, would help the district be more focused on mentoring students, helping them with their coping skills and working to develop action plans for remediation, Greene told the Herald last week.
The parent liaisons who will be making the transition to behavior techs will receive intensive training through the ESE Department.
Wylene Herring-Cayasso, who joined the Manatee School District as director of Exceptional Student Education and
Drop Out Prevention last summer, said it's the "million-dollar question" as to why black students tend to be identified more often than other students as EBD.
But it is a nationwide trend, she said.
In Manatee County, students are identified as EBD through a combination of "response to intervention" and testing, Herring-Cayasso said.
Staff members -- guidance counselors, teachers and parent liaisons, among others -- who observe emotional or behavioral problems attempt to work with the student to correct the problem and help the student become as successful as possible, she said.
The student's response to intervention helps determine whether they move toward an EBD identification.
"We have been working on staffing plans for several months," Greene said.
In the past, state auditors have criticized the Manatee School District for failing to provide documentation on why students have been identified as EBD, Greene said.
The district has been working on the over-identification issue and documentation issues, and the number of students identified as EBD are now trending down, Herring-Cayasso said.
In the current school year, 2013-2014, the total number of EBD students in Manatee County was 296, down from 313 in 2012-2013. A separate breakout for black male-only diagnoses was unavailable.
Also proposed as part of the reorganization is a path to school-based leadership for staff members, including qualified parent liaisons, who aspire to be principals one day.
"We want to make sure that if people desire to become principals, that there are pathways for them," Greene said.
Under the reorganization plans, dean positions would be added to high schools and student support specialists would be added for schools with kindergarten through eighth-grade students.
Deans, who will be paid through supervisory-administrative funding, would "implement disciplinary procedures and policies to ensure a safe and orderly environment," according to a preliminary and yet unapproved job description.
The student support specialists would fall under paraprofessional non-instructional.
Greene said it is uncertain how much the reorganization will cost the district.
Parent liaisons who meet the qualifications for dean or student support specialist would be allowed to apply for the new positions.
Either way, the current parent liaisons would continue to have a job, as a behavior tech, a dean, or a student support specialist, Greene said.
There are 27 parent liaisons assigned to middle and high schools and a handful of elementary schools, according to Steve Valley, director of Communications and Family/Community Engagement. The behavior techs would be assigned to the ESE Department, not the schools.
When parent liaisons were initially advised about the proposed changes, there was a "level of anxiety," Greene said.
"We're still about helping children. Many were pleased and comfortable knowing that, if they qualify, they can apply for the other positions," she added.
There are several big milestones that could affect whether the reorganization is implemented.
The school district is still reeling from $13 million of overspending in recent years, and has not balanced its budget in two years. And the costs of the reorganization are still not known. In addition, the district found out Thursday that the district must cut $9.3 million from the 2014-15 budget to repay money that was misspent.
"We've got to go through the entire budget process. We also need to get approval of the school board," Greene said.
The soonest the changes might occur is in the 2014-15 school year, she said.
Asked if the proposed changes have anything to do with the scandal around former parent liaison Rod Frazier at Manatee High School, Greene responded with an emphatic "no."
The changes are a positive move to enable the district to do the best job possible for students and teachers, she said.
Frazier resigned last year after allegations of inappropriate behavior with students surfaced.
On Wednesday, Frazier pleaded no contest to three misdemeanor counts of battery and three counts of interfering with school attendance.
Although Frazier will serve no jail time, he will serve three years of probation and six months of house arrest.
Several administrators, including Robert Gagnon, the suspended assistant superintendent of schools, face criminal charges for failure to report suspicions of suspected child abuse.
Gagnon recently had a hearing by the Florida Division of Administration, in which he asserted his innocence. A ruling is expected on his case some time in May.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.