Troubled Kids Get Treated If They are White – But Punished If They are Black
Too many children do not receive the help to which they are legally entitled because of ingrained biases
Monday 24 August 2015 07.30 EDT
There’s a saying in educational circles: white kids get diagnosed, black kids get disciplined. Poor and brown kids, too, disproportionately get suspended, expelled, transferred to “continuation” schools, or even arrested for behavioral problems as mild as swearing. White kids, especially if their parents have money, health insurance, and access to lawyers, are more likely to have even chronic discipline problems treated as symptoms needing investigation and assessment.
I know this because my white kid is in that second group. From first through sixth grade, he was a challenging kid to teach. He was extremely bright – known for arguing with adults when they mistook a declarative sentence for an interrogative one, or got the definition of a light year wrong – and he would interrupt, shout or even swear when frustrated, and refuse to do work he found boring or repetitive. In elementary school, this was chalked up to his being bright and impatient and maybe a little overindulged at home. In middle school, homework issues and social difficulties bloomed into a full-blown case of clinical anxiety and eventually depression that led me to learn a lot about how schools do and don’t deal with these problems.
On Thursday, the US District Court in Los Angeles opened an unprecedented court case that argues that the way Compton Unified School District has treated students with trauma-induced anxiety and related behavioral problems violates federal law. The class action lawsuit argues that living with violence and “complex trauma” constitutes a disability, and that students who, because of where they live, have witnessed or experienced trauma or violence – shootings, abuse, foster placement, homelessness – are entitled to special education services under federal disability law.
Their argument is rooted in medical research. It’s well established that anxious children, perhaps especially boys, often act out in ways that do not look the way adults think anxiety should. When we imagine an anxious kid, we imagine them crying, clinging, hiding, shrinking away. But in fact, anxious children – and for that matter, anxious and depressed adults – often become aggressive and combative.
Their fight or flight response kicks in and they react by fighting. Even fleeing often looks like non-compliance: a kid who refuses to do homework, or skips school, or runs away, is often acting out of fear. The kids themselves, being kids, may lack the self-awareness or communication skills to understand or explain this, but psychologists and doctors who work with children recognize the symptoms.
It isn’t just about discipline, either. There’s also research showing that anxiety and stress inhibit learning, memory, the ability to follow directions – all the things we expect kids to be able to do in school. A kid who is using all their emotional and intellectual energy just to try to hold themselves together is a kid who doesn’t have a lot left over to memorize times tables or work algebra problems.
This means the approach most people think of for kids who are ‘difficult’ or who aren’t doing well in school (when those kids aren’t their own kids, and sometimes even when they are) is unhelpful, and actually harmful. Punishing a stressed kid just adds more stress. Eventually they reach a breaking point.
My own son’s breaking point came the day the county crisis team showed up at our house because someone heard him muttering that if he couldn’t keep dealing with school he could always decide to kill himself. I knew he’d been saying that and we’d been trying out therapists and having meetings at school about what accommodations could be provided for his anxiety. But when adults he didn’t know came to his home, accompanied by the police, to ask him intrusive questions, his trust in the school that sent them broke beyond repair, and we never sent him back. It took time and money to fix things and now he’s doing great.
But most kids, especially kids who are likely to end up in the school-to-prison pipeline, don’t have parents who can afford to find private solutions. And legally speaking, they don’t have to: public schools are required to accommodate kids with mental health or other disabilities that inhibit learning. For kids whose disabilities aren’t visible, accessing those services means getting a diagnosis. When professionals treat ‘acting out’ as a problem, rather than recognizing it as a symptom, kids don’t get that diagnosis. They don’t get help, and they don’t get the educations to which they are legally entitled.
If the kids suing Compton Unified win their case, they could make more difference to educational equity in this country than all the standardized testing in the world. This case won’t solve all the problems of poverty, or all the challenges for public education. But it could establish that the anxiety and stress that accompanies traumatic violence and poverty counts just as much as the anxiety and depression that come from genetic bad luck. As the parent of a kid who has been through that nightmare and is now coming out the other side because he got the support he needed, I am rooting for them.