The Manatee County school district deserves applause for this weekend's Black Male Crisis in America summit, designed to raise community awareness and action about the treatment of students labeled as having emotional behavioral disability.
The disproportionate percentage of black males here receiving what should be a medical diagnosis is very disturbing -- ranking No. 2 in all of Florida's school districts. This classification is one of the early signs of the state's school-to-prison pipeline, with misguided zero-tolerance laws that criminalize even the slightest student misbehavior.
The label of "emotional behavioral disability" can put students on the path of institutional overreach and a disciplinary system that all too easily finds fault and dishes out punishment. Intervention and treatment are pivotal to helping students reach their potential.
Manatee school district administrators, led by Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Diana Greene, and parents and the public will attack the classification problem on Saturday. All students will benefit from a proactive district strategy to deal with this issue, not just black males -- as summit organizers clearly indicated. The stigma of an emotional behavioral disability label cannot be discounted.
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Students with real problems who disrupt classrooms and their own education certainly need all the help the district can muster.
District staff are being trained to implement an "early warning system" that recognizes the academic, attendance, discipline and socioeconomic factors that weigh in the determination to classify a student as one with an emotional behavioral disability. A youth that rates within three of five categories will be marked for possible intervention.
In Manatee County, 45 percent of students stuck with the EBD classification are black males, though they only comprise 14 percent of the district's student population.
To suggest that other demographics are being slighted by this summit ignores the disconcerting realities that contribute to the higher drop-out and unemployment rates and lower graduation rates among black males, just to mention a few disproportionate factors impeding their achievement and success.
We as a community, a culture and a country need to address these difficult challenges for the good of everyone, not just black males.
We all benefit from a society that gives everyone equal opportunities to excel -- without unwarranted obstacles that begin early in adulthood and which persist with negative ramifications. Such is the stigma of the label "emotional behavioral disability" when unwarranted.
But when that rightful determination includes intensive intervention and care, then progress can be found for individuals accepting of both their problems and the helping hands extended by the district.
Nationwide, only 40 percent of the students diagnosed with EBD graduate from high school compared to the overall average of 76 percent. Statistics compiled by The Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and the Southern Poverty Law Center also show EBD students are three times as likely to be arrested before leaving school and 75 percent of young adults with the condition have been involved with the criminal justice system sometime in their lives.
Studies also show that EBD students are wrongly and easily dismissed as "problem kids" -- thus, reinforcing the condition's characteristics of anxiety, depression, aggression and low self-esteem and leading to more discipline. This is part and parcel of the zero-tolerance policies that serve to harm students, not help them.
Mental health has become an increasing significant part of a public education as districts grapple with issues hitherto left to parents out of privacy concerns. But when those issues interfere with education, and even threaten safety, society must step up.
Parents of students of all demographics -- but especially of black males -- should avail themselves of the opportunities the summit presents.
Sessions on parenting, early childhood care and nutrition (vital to a healthy development), the value of an education and other topics will all address a holistic approach to mitigating the risk factors that stymie success. From noon to 4 p.m. at Manatee Technical College, the summit promises to be an education bonanza.