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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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Wanda Parker’s son missed seven weeks of school after being suspended under a zero-tolerance policy for having a cell phone in class. Extreme punishment? Many of us would think so – especially given the fact that, as it turned out, the boy was never actually  in violation of school policy: what he had in his possession was not a phone, but an iPod touch -- which is not expressly prohibited by the rules at his school.

Remarkably, his story is not unique: growing numbers of students in the United States are facing what many of us would consider excessive discipline for relatively minor infractions, derailing their academic careers and setting them back by weeks or months. An alarming percentage of these students happen to be people of color.

Detailed civil rights data from the Department of Education reveal shocking disproportionality when it comes to who is suspended in US schools and why. It’s a problem that spreads from kindergarten through 12th grade, and there are concerns that these disparities play into larger problems, like the growth of the school-to-prison pipeline, where harsh penalties for disciplinary infractions push youth of color out of school, into the streets, and often, into early encounters with the criminal justice system. Criminalized so early, these youth may also tend to be prone to recidivism which in turn leads to longer sentences in the prison system, and dwindling numbers of social, economic and personal opportunities upon release.

Much speculation surrounds the racial aspects of how discipline is meted out in our schools, as educators and advocates seek to address the problem and promote a brighter future for youth of color in the United States. One underexplored contributing factor may be the gap in correct diagnosis and treatment of disabilities for children of color. Unidentified cognitive, intellectual and emotional disabilities can contribute to behavioral outbursts; rather than just poor behavior, many children of color may actually be displaying signs of untreated disability – and crying out for help.

Student discipline by the numbers

According to the New York Times, black students experience expulsion and suspension at a rate three and a half times higher than that of white students. Of students involved in arrests at school and referrals to law enforcement, 70% are black or Latino. Black boys in particular bear the brunt of zero-tolerance policies and harsh discipline in schools and are more likely to be placed in restraint and seclusion. A black student in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana was arrested and restrained by police for being in a school hallway without a pass, even though he’d explicitly received permission from his teacher. The ninth-grader was also subjected to “racially offensive language” during his interaction with law enforcement.

When the number of students of color receiving harsh punishments for minor infractions so far outpaces the number of whites receiving similar punishment, there is little doubt racism is a factor. Though some might argue that this disproportionality is simply an indicator that racial minorities commit more in-school infractions, what it in fact illustrates is the impact of racial bias on the handling of discipline problems. A 1980 study conducted in the prison system, for example, noted that while black and white prisoners actually committed violations at the same rate, black prisoners specifically were more likely to be reported. Furthermore, prior records counted against prisoners, even when they were not supposed to be considered in deliberations over appropriate penalties.

Similar racism plays a role in the perception of students of color in the classroom, as do issues like lack of cultural knowledge on the part of teachers and administrators. A teacher who isn’t familiar with cultural issues specific to a minority community may chastise a black student for speaking loudly or for using African-American vernacular English. Failure to account for these social and cultural differences can impact student performance in the classroom, with kids who feel misunderstood tuning out and losing focus. Eventually, their academic performance slips, and soon they have become just another statistic in the classroom -- rather than individuals in need of specific interventions. Teachers slammed with large numbers of students and growing administrative work may not have the time, or the training, to identify and address particular cultural needs.