The School-to-Prison Pipeline Swallows a Black Girl for Not Doing Her Homework
As a pediatric psychiatrist, I see how mental health issues are routinely criminalized in this pernicious cycle
Even in the midst of a pandemic, the courts are finding increasingly novel and cruel ways to criminalize mental health issues. Earlier this month, ProPublica revealed the stunning case of a 15-year-old Black girl with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) who was placed in juvenile detention for not doing her homework. The Michigan teen, who was identified in the story by her middle name, Grace, was on probation for separate assault and theft charges from late 2019. She did not have any further run-ins with the law for months, yet because she struggled to stay on track with school — during the height of the Covid-19 crisis no less — a judge ordered her to be held in detention for the last two months.
Children across the country are struggling to focus in this new Covid-19 socially distanced schooling environment, which only exacerbates existing issues of institutional racism in the schools. Grace is not a threat to her community for struggling to engage in school as the judge intimated. It makes her like so many kids who, like her, say they feel unmotivated and overwhelmed with online learning.
I work as a pediatric psychiatrist, and Grace is like so many patients I see. They’re struggling with managing the stress of Covid-19, behind on virtual schooling, and receiving mental health treatment for ADHD and learning difficulties. Online learning is a one-size-fits-all solution that does not serve the needs of so many children. In New York City, 36% of students for online summer school have not even logged on. The irony is that those who need remediation are now forced to use a largely self-guided online “instruction” to pass, which proved difficult in the first place. Despite protections from the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed 30 years ago, students in the pandemic are not able to receive many of the accommodations virtually that they would in person.
Without appropriate treatment, Black children are often punished instead of receiving the help they need.
Instead of diverting children from detention and helping connect them with more robust treatment, the court criminalized Grace’s underlying mental health issues. In Grace’s hearing last week, the judge said juvenile detention was exactly where Grace belonged. “You are blooming there,” the judge told her, “but there is more work to be done.”
This situation is hardly rare. Black children are less likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than white children, which means they are less likely to be treated with medications that we know are effective. Without appropriate treatment, Black children are often punished for having impulsive behaviors or difficulties with school instead of being given the help they need.
Grace, like so many other Black children in this country, has been caught in a pernicious disease known as the school-to-prison pipeline, which has deeply racist roots. In many cases, minor infractions in the school setting lead to involvement by law enforcement, which funnels children into the criminal justice system. Black girls are disproportionately suspended at incredibly high rates; a 2015 report by the African American Policy Forum found that children in Boston and New York City were 10 to 12 times more likely to be suspended than white peers. These infractions often result in Black children being incarcerated disproportionately. While those who work to uphold this system claim these juvenile detention facilities prevent criminality, such arguments are unfounded. In fact, we know that for most kids, juvenile detention negatively affects their ability to succeed.
To combat school systems criminalizing children for issues with schooling, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully sued Southern California’s Riverside County last year in a case that ended the relationship between probation and the public school system. The county may no longer treat school issues, such as truancy, as criminal matters. Instead, local officials must focus resources on helping children succeed without punitive intervention, which we know doesn’t work.
The system is traumatizing this child, making it harder for her to succeed.
In Grace’s case, the judge is only perpetuating this cycle of ineffective punishment. This child belongs with her mother, not in detention. Though the mother admits to having a difficult relationship with her daughter, there has not been evidence that she is neglectful or violent. The basic principles around child welfare in this country are to keep children with their family of origin whenever it’s safe to do so. Instead, removing Grace from her home and transferring her into a juvenile correctional facility only compounds trauma and contributes to the load of “toxic stress.” These kinds of adverse childhood events can increase the risk of poor physical and mental health outcomes long term. These conditions also decrease a person’s ability to excel academically and in the workplace. The system is traumatizing this child, making it harder for her to succeed.
These kinds of cases show up in my office and the public hospital where I work nearly every week. In the same way people see doctors for a fever, children are sent to pediatric psychiatrists when they have issues in school. And just like a fever, this is a symptom that requires examination for an appropriate diagnosis and intervention. My colleagues and I assess whether family therapy or parent training would be helpful, whether the child needs psychotherapy, and whether their ADHD is appropriately treated with medication. We also try to understand if a child’s school supports are adequate, if they have specific learning disabilities, and whether the school is fulfilling their needs.
When the school system does not fulfill the obligations they have to provide children with a “free and appropriate education,” legal aid is sought to help enforce necessary accommodations. At no point is juvenile detention part of the treatment plan.
In the past months, there have been national protests after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and a nascent movement that’s coalesced to combat police brutality and unjust incarceration. There is also a deeper understanding of structural racism and the institutions — such as education and health care — that embody it. This new momentum behind the anti-racism movement prompted thousands to protest the Michigan judge’s decision with a trending online hashtag #FreeGrace.
Grace’s story is one that highlights the need for upstream interventions. Her case comes at a time when public school systems have lost funding, even while law enforcement budgets have grown. We need to invest in schools, after-school programs, and mental health treatment instead of punishing children. We have the solutions we are looking for; we need the moral will to apply them. This is even more important in the context of this pandemic when children are under so much stress and need care for their emotional needs. In fact, many schools have done away with grades altogether.
Racial justice won’t come from just reading literature on how to become anti-racist but with solidarity in the work to combat the manifestations of injustice everywhere we see them. Children’s lives depend on it.