Massacres, Mental Health and Black Kids


(The Root) — The suspected mental-health issues of the Newtown, Conn., man who killed 26 people before killing himself on Dec. 14 has many scrutinizing the resources available for people who suffer from psychiatric disorders. The shooter, Adam Lanza, was only 20 years old, and all of the victims, except for his mother, Nancy Lanza, were murdered at school.


These two aspects of the crime are motivating many school leaders and policymakers to engage in a long, unsettled conversation about mental health in places of learning. However, while expanding resources for young people with mental illness is important, discussing mental illness within the context of a mass murder will only result in mental-health stigma and misinformed policies.

Did the Sandy Hook Shooter Have a Mental-Health Problem? 

So far, the only evidence we have that Lanza had any sort of special needs was his parents' noting his Asperger's syndrome, an autism-spectrum disorder, to a therapist during their divorce. Therefore, the coverage of the shooter's "mental illness" is grossly disproportional to any evidence presented that he had an enduring psychiatric disorder. The mere fact that we presume an inevitable connection between mental illness and mass murder is deeply problematic. There is simply no evidence that someone with autism is more likely to murder than the general population.


The media's peculiar fixation on mental health as a causal determinant of violence in this particular case has the trappings of race and class biases. In the initial coverage of the Sandy Hook shooting, the media were transparent in trying to make one point clear: If this could happen at this school, this could happen anywhere.

A "neighborhood of spacious houses on a crest overlooking gentle hills" is how CNN described the Sandy Hook community in an article entitled "Shooter's Mother Had Heart of Gold." Would such a description be considered if the subject were a black woman who was single, collected money without having a job and who purchased a cache of weapons, which her son used to kill 20 children? Notably, CNN subsequently changed the title of the article to "Shooter's Mother Wanted Her Son to Fit In."

Many articles also noted that the shooter's father, Peter Lanza, was a successful man who provided the financial means for his ex-wife to raise their children without having to work. However, I have read nothing that postulated the remote possibility that the father's absence from the home was responsible for his son's failures. He admitted to learning about his son's crime from the news and appears completely dumbstruck that his son had the capacity for this level of psychopathy.

Also, the media have consistently displayed a disingenuous amazement that this picturesque town could spawn this type of violence. History suggests that insulated exurbs with a large population of gun enthusiasts, inexplicable paranoia, haughty facades and intolerance of eccentricities are fertile grounds for spontaneous violence among their troubled pariahs.


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. 

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.


While they may have difficulty processing large volumes of dense text, they may be the best at taking discrete concepts and applying them creatively to novel situations. Their scattered attention and hyperactive energy also helps some children with ADHD juggle many tasks, relate to many people and excel in student activities and student government.

Also, most people are aware of the social challenges for children with autism that make it difficult for them to communicate with other students or teachers. However, few take the time to understand the advantages of certain peculiar behaviors. In some instances, children with autism are able to leverage their repetitive behaviors and extraordinary attention to random objects into the development of mathematic and artistic abilities.


How Black Students Without Disabilities End Up in Special Education

Lael L. Montgomery was in elementary school when his father murdered his mother. Instead of receiving the care he needed to resolve the emotional trauma associated with losing both parents in one day, he was sent to school. Predictably, in school Lael was sullen, withdrawn and disconnected.


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 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.


Ivory A. Toldson, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of the QEM Network, a professor at Howard University and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Negro Education. Previously, Toldson was appointed by President Barack Obama to be the executive director of the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. He also served as senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and contributing education editor for The Root, where he debunked some of the most pervasive myths about African Americans in his Show Me the Numbers column. Follow him on Twitter.

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