Massacres, Mental Health and Black Kids
Show Me the Numbers: As Newtown coverage conflates mental illness and violence, students may suffer.
His teacher responded by recommending him for special education classes. However, the astute special education teacher realized that Lael did not have a learning or emotional disability, worked to help him resolve his trauma and quickly transitioned him back to mainstream education. Through the process, Lael learn to use creative writing as a therapeutic tool. He ultimately graduated from Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., published a book of poetry and currently works as a substance-abuse counselor.
I share Lael's story to illustrate the fact that having, or not having, a disability is not a rigid category. Most, if not all, people have some characteristics of one or more disability. We all have different attention spans, levels of anxiety, susceptibility to distraction and social acuity, among other issues that are controlled by past and present circumstances, as well as our unique biochemical makeup.
Many black students who end up in special education do not have a disability. Rather, they have circumstances that spur behavior patterns that are not compatible with the school environment. Situation-specific symptoms will usually remit with basic guidance and structural modifications to the person's situation. In school settings, from the standpoint of disabilities, students can be divided into four categories:
1. A true negative: children who do not have a disability and have never been diagnosed
2. A true positive: children who have a disability and have been accurately diagnosed
3. A false negative: children who have a disability but have never been diagnosed
4. A false positive: children who do not have a disability but have been diagnosed with one, or have a specific disability and have been diagnosed with the wrong one
Many problems are associated with false-negative and false-positive diagnoses. A child with an undiagnosed disability might experience less compassion and no accommodations for learning or behavioral challenges. A child with a genuine learning disorder might be expected to follow the same pace as other students, and be penalized with suspensions for opposing an incompatible learning process.
False-positive children may be relegated to a learning environment that is not stimulating or challenging. Research that Dr. Leon Caldwell edited for a special issue of the Journal of Negro Education found evidence that black students are more likely than other races to have false-negative and false-positive diagnoses because of culturally biased assessments, unique styles of expression and environmental stressors.
Lesson About Mental Health in Black Schools That We Won't Learn From Sandy Hook
Black students with and without disabilities can excel in schools that have adequate opportunities for diverse learners and a structure that supports personal and emotional growth and development. Contrarily, schools that view disability and emotional-adjustment difficulties as enduring pathologies (the sorts of afflictions that will cause kids to grow up and one day shoot up schools) that need to be permanently segregated from "normal" students will stunt academic growth and development.
The more than 10,000 black ninth-graders with histories of disabilities who are currently enrolled in honors classes likely benefited from patient and diligent parents who instilled a sense of agency within them and a compassionate school that accommodated a diversity of learners. They are also likely to have some protection from adverse environmental conditions, such as family and community violence, which can compound disability symptoms.
Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is a tenured associate professor at Howard University, senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education and contributing education editor for The Root. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter. His father, Dr. Ivory Lee Toldson, a psychologist who dedicated his career to addressing mental health and to educating counselors in training at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., died Dec. 25, 2012. This article is dedicated to him.