Lawmaker Takes a Look at Blacks and Education; the Small Number of African-American Men in College Is Raising Concerns

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Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE --As an employee at the state Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice, Randy Nelson started noticing differences between the African-American men who came through the barred doors and those that didn't.

The biggest difference: education.

Nelson sharpened his observations while working on his doctorate in criminology at Florida State University. He also shared his observations with the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee, where he met Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville. The trend was troubling -- a lack of higher education seemed a glaring, common tie binding together the young black men in Florida's prisons.

This month, Hill makes the issue his first high-profile cause since taking over the Legislature's Black Caucus in May. He will hold a four-city "listening tour" July 25-30, with town hall meetings in different corners of the state. There is a July 28 meeting at Edward Waters College in Jacksonville.

"The numbers are going in the wrong direction, and we want to get to the bottom of it," Hill said.

He recited statistics, reported in April in the St. Petersburg Times, that showed African-American males have disproportionately high rates of suspensions, expulsions, testing failures and dropouts. That and other studies have shown that African-American men comprise just 5 percent of the 277,000 students in the state's universities, yet they make up 40 percent of the juvenile prison population and 48 percent of adult prisoners.

Nelson said African-American student performance should be better tracked by the state, and schools held more accountable for weaknesses. But he also said communities have to step up as well.

"My Ph.D. and my experience in those agencies isn't what really gave me insight," Nelson said. "It was seeing the inner-city poverty and crime firsthand growing up. …