Massacres, Mental Health and Black Kids

Show Me the Numbers: As Newtown coverage conflates mental illness and violence, students may suffer.

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Facts About Mental Health in Schools

Mental illness is not a clinical term but, rather, a legal term with no relevance to the school setting. A person should be called "mentally ill" only if he or she commits a crime or is subject to civil commitment. Mental-health professionals do not diagnose "mental illness." A mental-health professional would use one, or several, of hundreds of diagnoses from the DSM-IV-TR (the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) to classify a disorder.

In technical terms, a student with mental-health issues would be considered a "student with a disability." In some but not all cases, a child who has been diagnosed with a disability would be entitled to special educational accommodations, as delineated in the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Students with disabilities are very common. According to the High School Longitudinal Survey, about 20 percent of all students have been diagnosed with a disability, if you include those protected under the IDEA Act, including learning disabilities, developmental delays, autism, intellectual disabilities and those diagnosed with ADHD. There is little racial variation in prevalence of disabilities among students. Males are more likely than females to be diagnosed with a disability.

Students with disabilities suffer many adverse consequences in schools, but their experiences vary considerably. Aside from special education, students with disabilities are more likely to repeat a grade, be suspended or expelled from school or have the school contact a parent about problem behavior and poor performance. Using these factors as a reliable predictor of not completing school, we find that students of all races and genders with disabilities are at least three times more likely to drop out of school than their counterparts without disabilities. 

Nevertheless, the trajectory of black students with disabilities is not uniformly dismal. Among the black male ninth-graders who are currently enrolled in honors courses, 15 percent have been told at least once by a health professional or the school that they have a disability. Three percent of black males in honors courses have been told that they have a learning disability; 3 percent, autism; and 6 percent, ADD or ADHD.  Read more about this in Challenge the Status Quo.

How Black Students With Disabilities End Up in Honors Classes

Having a broader understanding of the nature of disabilities helps us to have a better understanding of how black students with disabilities end up in honors classes. Importantly, a disability does not have to be debilitating.

For instance, a learning disorder may be more aptly described as an alternative learning style. For some students, mastering an alternative learning style will give them a competitive edge over students who are average "standard" learners. A visual learner could master the art of using pictures to encode lessons to memory or use "concept mapping" to invigorate mundane text. 

Similarly, while some easy-to-bore ADD and ADHD students have an irresistible impulse to create the havoc necessary to stimulate their nervous systems, others may use their urges to energize the lessons. They may interject humor and anecdotes or push their teachers to create analogies.