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The Hidden Epidemic of Undiagnosed Disabilities Among Students of Color

To fix racial disproportionality in school discipline, we must first address the gap in the diagnosis and treatment of disabilities among children of color.

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Community-based interventions like these have proven successful in healthcare models, and similar approaches could work in academic environments as well. By working within communities, schools could also address factors that may contribute to behavioral problems in school like hunger, homelessness and unstable home situations. This may involve cooperation with multiple organizations to provide complete coverage to students inside and outside the classroom.

An important component of these interventions should include detailed disability screening when it appears relevant, accompanied by appropriate interventions for disabled students. These may involve extra time on tests, the provision of aides, medications and other measures to help disabled students succeed in the classroom.

A bill brought before the New York Senate earlier this year explored some of these issues, proposing that parents be provided with information on disability services and other interventions when their children face suspension hearings. The bill specifically identified concerns about undiagnosed disabilities and behavioral problems, and as of May 2012 was referred to the Education Committee for consideration.

Holistic, integrated approaches to school discipline could start to turn our shocking discipline numbers around, creating an environment in which students of all races are handled appropriately when it comes to behavioral problems. That starts with preventing such problems in the first place by identifying students who may be at risk and providing early and appropriate interventions, whether they take the form of evaluation for a disability, assistance with accessing government benefits or provision of specialized instruction to help a failing student catch up with the rest of the class. Alongside interventions aimed at troubled students, schools must also consider how to make the overall school environment more supportive by addressing problems like racist bullying, which can become another important contributing factor in behavioral outbursts.

s.e. smith is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Bitch, Feministe, Global Comment, the Sun Herald, the Guardian, and other publications. Follow smith on Twitter: @sesmithwrites.