Massacres, Mental Health and Black Kids

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


Overall, it seems the media implicitly accept the premise that mental illness is the only plausible explanation for the shooter’s behavior, because otherwise, he was an ordinary young man with an ordinary life. What about emotional trauma or family dysfunction? This statement is not meant to be an affront on the Lanza family or the Sandy Hook community; however, as hard as the media are trying, there is simply no way to examine the shooter’s mental state without considering the undercurrents of family and community that shaped his existence.

Beyond biases in media reporting, I am most concerned that the Sandy Hook shooting will mutate the development of school mental-health policies and practices at predominantly black schools, much in the same way that the Columbine, Colo., tragedy shaped school security. Today 19 percent of black schoolchildren and 21 percent of white schoolchildren are diagnosed with a disability by the time they reach the ninth grade, according to the High School Longitudinal Survey. In this edition of Show Me the Numbers, I separate the facts from the myths about mental-health challenges among black schoolchildren. What do young people with mental-health challenges really need from adults and schools?

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.