Too many black males are being removed from Schenectady classrooms on an incorrect mental-health diagnosis, Superintendent Laurence Spring said.
He said boys who have experienced violence or abuse — either by watching it or being hurt themselves — are being wrongly labeled as “emotionally disturbed” when they misbehave.
He thinks those students need counseling, or perhaps intervention at home, rather than special education classes. “We’ve got a significant disproportionality that concerns me,” he said.
White children who misbehave in the same ways — by cursing, throwing things or otherwise acting violently — are often diagnosed with attention deficit issues. They’re given medication and allowed to stay in their classroom, Spring said.
“But if you’re black, you’re much more likely to be classified as emotionally disturbed,” he said. He doesn’t think most of the students actually have an emotional disturbance.
“Violence and cursing — it’s done to them. They learn to do it,” he said, referring to the student’s families. “The problem is not that they’re ED. The problem is something else.”
But, he said, the district doesn’t have the resources to help students who are abused or living in domestic violence situations. “We don’t have enough social workers,” Spring said.
So teachers have few options, other than sending the student out of the classroom.
“The behavior is still extraordinarily dangerous and disruptive,” Spring said, adding that it would be reasonable for teachers to say, “If you don’t want us to label them ED, you’ve got to give us some other tools.”
Grant may help
He is hoping a new state grant — $2.4 million for Lincoln Elementary School — will give him options for some of those children. Lincoln will have mental health services, counselors, parental classes, and other resources. If the pilot program is a success, he could argue for more money to expand it to every school in the district.
In the 1990s, there were many programs for abused and traumatized children in the schools. Planned Parenthood ran a sexual assault victims support group, while the YWCA ran group counseling sessions for children suffering from domestic violence, YWCA Executive Director Rowie Taylor said.
She said the YWCA group was able to help most children, with the severely traumatized students being referred for one-on-one counseling with a school psychologist.
But those programs were eliminated many years ago due to a lack of funding.
“We’re really seeing the results of those things not happening,” Taylor said. “If there was money to pay for them, we would love to be back in the schools. There’s some wonderful programs in our community, and some wonderful agencies that could ramp up programs.”
She added that children who experience violence often become aggressive.
“A lot of kids get really aggressive. Others withdraw and act passive,” she said. “The aggressiveness just gets out of control. But there are solutions.”
Counseling is key.
“I love the direction he’s looking at,” Taylor said. “I love his innovative approach.”
She added that although Spring sees a disproportionate number of boys being labeled as emotionally disturbed, girls also become aggressive when violence is part of their childhoods.