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mental illness in schools

As a clinical child psychologist and associate professor of social work, I’m concerned by the national discourse around mental health, violence and schools, as pundits offer misguided and simplistic solutions to the very complex issue of student mental health:

Arm the teachers. Install metal detectors. Practice lockdown procedures.

We can all agree that safety in schools is paramount, but by focusing on the intersection of violence and mental health, we are missing the point.

Our society is failing to effectively address the tremendous need for mental health supports for our children, my son included.

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When I was growing up, springtime at school was reinvigorating: a time of warmer weather, spring break and even renewed enthusiasm for classes. Now that I’m a mother, each new season, or day for that matter, brings worry: worry that my teenage son won’t make it out of bed and out the door in the morning; worry that if he does, he will be misunderstood in the classroom, the cafeteria or, worse, the band hall.

The band hall has long been his refuge, where he retreats to get lost in the comfort of music. But last semester, after a series of absences and missed assignments, he was temporarily suspended from playing in the high school band. His suspension was no surprise; it is the latest in a string of punishments by adults who do not understand his depression. And it is just one small example of how our society punishes and criminalizes, rather than prevents and treats, mental health problems.

“Our educational system punishes, suspends and expels children with mental disorders at double or more the rate of their peers. The disparity is largest for black and brown teenage boys … ”

One in five children has a debilitating mental illness, and exclusionary and punitive practices are the norm for dealing with their symptoms. Few educators would consider reprimanding a child to “just breathe” during an asthma attack, or sending a child to detention because he or she had a seizure and disrupted the class.

But according to the U.S. Department of Education, our educational system punishes, suspends and expels children with mental disorders at double or more the rate of their peers. The disparity is largest for black and brown teenage boys, who are shepherded out of school into the juvenile justice system as part of the well-documented school-to-prison pipeline. I often wonder whether my son would be among them if we lived in a different zip code or if his skin were the darker shade of some of his cousins’.

Related: A new movement to treat troubled children as ‘sad, not bad’

A few years ago, my son pushed into his brother as they passed in the school hallway, causing my younger son to stumble backwards. The incident was reported to the administration because of my older son’s documented “emotional disturbance.” Under the guise of safety, the school filed a police report alleging peer-to-peer assault and initiated a child welfare investigation for neglect and physical and emotional abuse. In disciplinary meetings, administrators wondered out loud whether a more restrictive environment would better meet his needs. With a strict warning, they simply suspended him. At age 12, my son became one of approximately three million public school students suspended from school each year.

Dozens of times since then, in instances big and small, I have seen how we misunderstand, exclude and punish students with mental health problems. I think of the 5-year-old who qualified for gifted education in his local magnet school but was denied admission because of his speech difficulties; of the high school student with autism spectrum disorder who was discouraged from taking an AP class he qualified for because his behavior might become challenging; of the college student who was failing all of her classes because she was homebound with debilitating panic attacks.

And I think of the countless parents who have told me, eyes cast down, about their child’s mental health struggles. They know that empathy in our society is reserved for other illnesses. Their hushed tones are meant to protect their children and their family from stigma.

Rhetoric following the Parkland school shooting has deepened stigmatization. By labeling a teen with depression, ADHD and autism-spectrum disorder “sicko” and calling for troubled youth to be kept out of communities through institutionalization practices that have proven both ineffective and inhumane, President Donald Trump reinforced archaic notions of mental illness as a character flaw to be punished. And our collective silence only breeds misunderstandings of our children’s symptoms and needs.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: Don’t blame autism for the Florida school shooting

So what if, instead, we were to speak up and call for better understanding and treatment of mental health disorders within our educational system? What if, in response, the educational system were to share the responsibility of meeting the mental health needs of our children?

Educators report that they have limited time and training to deal with mental health issues. Their focus, rightly, is to ensure that students acquire the requisite knowledge and skills in core academic subjects, an enormous and complicated undertaking in itself.

But to teach, educators must be able to engage their students, including the 20 percent who are too hyperactive, impulsive, depressed, panicked or distracted to listen. According to research, these children will be more likely to get poor grades, skip classes and drop out of school, especially when they have been suspended or expelled for misbehavior. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that just over half a million students drop out of high school each year, leading to a cascade of costly and negative consequences, including lower rates of employment, lower earnings when employed, and higher rates of both welfare and incarceration.

Related: What happens when a regular high school decides no student is a lost cause?

We can invest in mental health services in schools instead. Well-developed, empirically validated, school-based treatments are available for childhood mental health disorders. They reflect decades of research showing that a supportive, inclusive and skills-building approach to dealing with mental health problems is most effective. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs has long invested in the development, testing and implementation of programs to address mental health needs, including the widely recognized Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS). Researchers have estimated the cost of PBIS to be as high as $62 per student, compared with a cost of $163,340 per dropout. What will we choose to pay for?

This semester, my son has been allowed to play with the band again, but I struggle to find a sense of hope with this fresh start. I can’t help but wonder when the next suspension will come. But in the meantime, I’m ready to drop my hushed tone. We can demand that others stop punishing our children for their illnesses. We can push for access to programs designed to support our children. We can stop the criminalization of mental health problems in schools.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Dr. Esther Calzada is a clinical child psychologist, an associate professor of social work at The University of Texas at Austin and a fellow in the OpEd Project. Her program of research, focused on family and intergenerational processes and interventions, aims to reduce racial/ethnic disparities in mental health problems and academic achievement.  

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