The Hidden Epidemic of Undiagnosed Disabilities Among Students of Color

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.

The pathologization of normal behavior is another component feeding the disproportionality problem. Historically, people of color have been tagged with behavioral problems or mental illness for behaviors that wouldn’t attract attention among white people. For example, some black slaves were labeled with “drapetomania,” an alleged mental illness that drove them to attempt to flee captivity. This was regarded as a disease, rather than an entirely natural response to being enslaved.

Reports on the numbers of students of color in special education seem to suggest some diagnostic disparities across the US, which are in part related to the same tendency to refuse to consider social, cultural and environmental factors in the diagnosis and treatment of youth. In some cases, cultural cues may be missed during a diagnostic screening, leading to a label of a learning disability like a communication disorder when a student is in fact performing at a level comparable to his or her peers. Likewise, language barriers can lead to a decision to shunt a student into special education classes, where that student will not be well served.

Meanwhile, the opposite phenomenon is also an issue: While some students of color without intellectual disabilities end up placed in special education as a result of misdiagnosis, students who do have such disabilities (as well as mental illnesses) often fall through the cracks.

Take Terrence, a black nine-year-old whose mother repeatedly asked for a disability evaluation for her son, only to be denied. When she transferred him to another district, he became involved in an altercation at school with a white student. Terrence was punished and the white student was not – despite the fact that Terrence had an unrecognized disability that contributed to his behavioral problems. None of this was considered when it came time to level his punishment: suspension for the remainder of the school year.

In many ways Terrence was lucky – he was only suspended, not expelled. Black disabled boys are much more likely to be expelled than students of any other race or disability status, and when early diagnosis and interventions are missed, frustration and anger that manifest as behavioral issues tend to plague their entire academic careers. 

Poverty, race, and health problems combine to slam US students

Race and poverty are heavily intertwined in the United States, and they play an important role in the development of intellectual and cognitive disabilities. People of color are more likely to live in poverty and to live in dangerous neighborhoods with environmental pollutants and other health hazards, a phenomenon known as environmental racism.

As a result, pregnant women of color are at higher risk of exposure to toxins known to interfere with fetal development. Many pregnant women of color also lack access to nutrition and health care that plays a key role in the success of the pregnancy. Consequently, their children can be at higher risk for intellectual and cognitive disabilities, and these problems don’t stop at birth; pollutants can also cause neurological damage in the long term. A student living next to a refinery, for instance, could develop cognitive impairments from chemicals used on site.

Before they even enter the classroom, then, students of color can be at a disadvantage created by the environment they live in. And when their disabilities aren’t identified, the consequences can be serious. Students with conditions like ADHD may appear unfocused as a result of their disabilities. In white children, this may lead to an intervention and evaluation to determine the cause of the student’s discipline problems. Black children may be labeled “troublemakers,” rather than being referred to a counselor for evaluation. The longer the disability remains undiagnosed, the more likely the student is to fall behind in school. Such often-punished students can also start to become suspicious of teachers and other authority figures, inspiring additional behavioral problems.

Mental health in particular can be a significant problem for minority students. The National Institutes of Health notes that overall health tends to suffer in minority groups, and that mental illness is a particular issue for the black community. Poor access to mental health services can lead to greater disability, which can in turn contribute to behavioral problems in the classroom.

Just one in five children overall gets access to needed mental health services, and among minorities, lack of economic access makes the problem particularly dire. Black families are less likely to have a single-point primary care provider whom they see regularly. Irregular access to medical care can make it difficult to identify, let alone monitor, mental illness, leaving children with mental health conditions without the treatments they need. As a result, these students are much more likely to drop out of school, and eventually, end up in the prison system.

Further complicating matters is the wariness of some minority communities to accept health interventions offered by establishment institutions. Minority communities may also have differing attitudes about conditions like mental illness, which can make it difficult for them to find common ground when evaluation and treatment is recommended by outsiders. When faced with recommendations for outside interventions, families and communities may close ranks as an act of self-protection.

Confronting the disproportionality problem

Addressing school discipline policies proactively is one way to break this dangerous cycle and ensure equal educational opportunities for people of all races in the United States. A fundamental reform of the way schools view infractions and behavioral problems is critically necessary at this stage, as is a radical shift in the way discipline is handled not just in schools, but also in communities at large.

Rather than viewing infractions as inevitable in the school environment, districts should be considering how and why students act out to address specific issues before they become a problem. For many districts, this may require specific training in cultural issues unique to particular populations so staff, teachers and administrators are more aware of student backgrounds. Such training can help schools articulate more effective discipline policies targeted at their populations, while also providing staff and instructors with tools they can use to identify troubled students as early as possible.

Zero-tolerance policies, adopted at a growing number of schools, demonstrably don’t work. Their lack of flexibility creates no room for judgment calls and also doesn’t account for context. If a Latino student is subjected to racial taunts on the playground repeatedly over the course of a school year and starts to develop behavioral problems as a result, a zero-tolerance school’s response may not be able to account for the racism driving the student’s behavior, casting the student simply as the perpetrator of undesirable behavior, rather than as a victim himself.

Such programs are also focused on reactive punishment, rather than anticipatory reinforcement of good behavior to prevent problems before they start. One intervention adopted by some school districts is Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support, which stresses a preventative approach to school discipline. Rather than waiting for students to run afoul of disciplinary policies, the program looks at individuals within the larger context of the school and their community to help students succeed before they develop problems. It also stresses whole-school intervention, rather than just singling out suspected problem students.

Prevention, rather than reaction, can radically change the face of school discipline, especially if students, teachers, support staff, and parents are committed to working together. This requires a community outreach component on the part of schools, so they can educate themselves about the communities their students live in, and provide information to parents and community leaders about the support available at the school.

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.

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