Torrance Keaton has heard about all the recent high-profile hand wringing over young black males.
Community forums in St. Petersburg, a town hall meeting Friday in Tampa hosted by 60 Minutes and more panels in the works from national and local black organizations all dissecting and speculating:
Why are young black males failing to make it out of school?
For Keaton the answer was this: No connection. Nothing clicked. No teacher nurtured his interest in math. The streets proved a stronger lure. He dropped out of Boca Ciega High School. He sold drugs. He got shot.
"If you're a troubled teen, they were just pushing you out of the way," said Keaton, now 31. "They're doing just enough to get you by."
The feeling was echoed by several black males — current or former students in the Tampa Bay area. Though their stories differ, nearly all the young men share some common history: disenfranchised in school, pushed toward sports and surrounded by teachers who assume they are aloof academically.
"They don't treat us as individuals," said Toure Wills, 17, a junior at Clearwater High School who cites the ROTC program as his motivation to succeed. "They treat us like a group of outcasts, troublemakers."
It might make a kid just want to give up.
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The recent conversations about how to fix the problem has been largely adult-driven.
At a town hall meeting Friday at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina, only one student was on the panel.
Middleton High School senior Tevin Sutton, 17, didn't give a long speech when asked to describe the magnitude of the issue.
He used his own experience.
"I remember the first day in ninth grade,'' when he and about 20 friends ''would walk to school together," he told the crowd. There are ''only three or four of us left. The rest of them have dropped out."
Leaders have vowed to attack the situation and close the achievement gap between young black men and the rest of their peers.
The problem, they say, is not new and has been perpetuated because of inaction.
"It's bad because it's getting worse," said George Garrow, executive director of Concerned Black Men, a national organization. "The problem is almost growing exponentially. The reason it's growing exponentially . . . is because we have not focused on the problem."
Yet even when school leaders do try to tackle the problem, they often begin in the wrong place, the young men interviewed by the Times said.
Many teacher and principals, they said, tend to focus more on superficial cultural cues connected to stereotypes, the young men said.
Bernard Scott is the only person in his family who graduated and pursued higher education.
But the 22-year-old said he still got rebuked by white professors and teachers who were more preoccupied with whether his pants were hanging low and he wore a hooded sweatshirt.
"I'm here, in college, and that's the only thing you're worried about?" said Scott, who attended Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg and graduated in May from Assumption College in Massachusetts with a degree in management. "The problem is not sagging. They're worried about the wrong thing."
Too many young black males are gliding by without much guidance, Scott said.
Positive images they see of black men in the media tend to be entertainers or athletes, he said.
Some may have one or two good teachers along the way, he said, but that's usually the exception, not the rule.
Even the argument that an education will equal a good job sounds false to them, Scott said, as they see people struggling during the current recession.
But many of the young black males interviewed by the Times said the biggest problem is that they feel as if there is an inherent lack of interest ingrained in the system.
Kaison Watson, a 27-year-old grad who is pursuing a degree in psychology at the University of South Florida, said he was into art and science but didn't find out until the middle of his time at St. Petersburg High School that the district offered special programs for students who wanted to pursue careers in that path.
In ninth grade, De'Andre Gray was considered a troublemaker and was kicked out of local community programs, but when a principal summoned him to the office to talk about some issues he was having, his advice was this: Why don't you go out for football?
"I feel like I intimidate most of them," said Gray, a 17-year-old senior who now is a teen leader at the Clearwater Boys and Girls Club. "They expect us to fill a seat, that's all."
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Despite the challenges, many of the young men said there is a way to change things.
Keaton, once a drug dealer, turned around his life and graduated from high school at age 20. He now works for the city of St. Petersburg's teen recreation department.
He and others said all the blame can't be put on the schools; it will take the whole community to solve the issue.
Young black males need more positive role models. They need strong support systems, especially in instances where they aren't getting that at home. They need to feel connected to their schools again.
Most importantly, those interviewed said, is for those who are the topic of the discussion to start speaking up.
"A lot of kids are just giving up hope," said Scott. "The school system needs to hear this side of the story."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.