Mental Health, Race, Poverty, & the School to Prison Pipeline

Minority and high-poverty students are at greater risk for experiencing challenges in the school setting

Children and youth frequently encounter significant challenges in their school, home, and community settings, which include mental health issues and concerns. Mental health refers to the psychological well-being of an individual. The Mayo Clinic (2015), defines mental health as a state of psychological well-being as opposed to one characterized by mental illness, which includes a wide range of mental health impairments or disorders that negatively affect mood, thinking, and behavior. Children with mental health concerns frequently have a more difficult time being successful in school, manifesting both academic and behavioral challenges.

For example, research has noted that children with mental health needs are suspended three times more often than their peers, have poor attendance, and are more likely to drop-out of school between 9th and 12th grade (Skiba et al., 2005).Untreated mental health issues can lead to lower self-esteem, poor physical health, substance abuse, poor academic achievement, poverty, and conflicts with peers(Michael & Crowley, 2002). More importantly, these data suggest that minority and high-poverty students are at greater risk for experiencing challenges in the school setting (Durlak at al., 2011; Wagner et al., 2005).

Research has consistently demonstrated a correlation between poverty and academic outcomes, with students in poverty experiencing less success in school when compared with their non-low-income, non-minority counterparts both with and without disabilities (Ainsworth- Darnell & Downey, 1998; Bradley & Corwyn, 2002; Evans, 2004; Kataoka, Zhang, and Wells, 2002; Wagner et al., 2005). Poverty may be defined as the lack of the usual or socially acceptable amount of money or material possessions. The Census Bureau uses financial income to determine who is in poverty. If a family’s total income is less than the financial threshold determined by the Census Bureau, then the family is considered to be living in poverty.

In the school setting, socioeconomic status is determined by measures such as eligibility for free or reduced lunches or the school’s determination as qualifying for Title I funding. The U.S. Department of Education (2012) defines Title I as a federal program that provides financial assistance to school systems with high percentages of impoverished children to support and foster their academic achievement. The Federal Government designates Title I schools based on the percent of underprivileged students in attendance. According to the U.S Census Bureau (2000), a larger proportion of these schools are located in high-poverty rural and urban areas.

It is also important to operationally define the term minority. The term minority refers to any individual who is not single-race white and includes African-Americans, Hispanics, Indian, and Asians (U.S Census Bureau, 2000). It is important to understand these terms because minority children who live in poverty are at an increased risk for manifesting behavioral concerns and poor academic achievement (Masi & Cooper, 2006; Skiba et al., 2008). Additionally, these statistics are especially disheartening for African-American students, who have lower high school graduation rates and higher drop-out rates in grades 9–12 (Stillwell, 2009). Behaviorally, minority students, especially African-American males, are referred for disciplinary infractions at disproportionate rates by comparison to Caucasian students. These negative trends are also reflected in significantly higher rates of suspensions for minority students (Skiba et al., 2011).

The impact of poverty has received attention in the emprical literature (Durlak et al. 2011, Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013, Zins & Elias, 2007). A review of these findings clearly suggests that exposure to poverty plays a pivotal role in shaping outcomes for children and youth. For example, McLeod and Shanahan (1993) provide evidence demonstrating the amount of time spent in poverty is a predictor of mental health for children. The authors used data from the Children of National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to explore the relationship between poverty and children’s mental health. The authors found that persistent poverty significantly predicted children’s internalizing symptoms and current poverty predicted externalizing symptoms. Reports of unhappiness, depression, dependence, and anxiety increased as the length of time children spent in poverty increased. Stressors such as poor nutrition, unsafe living conditions, and high rates of crime were cited as primary contributors to the negative outcomes experienced by children from these communities.

A review of the literature suggests that not only are children living in poverty at higher risk for mental health and behavioral problems, but they are less likely to report them or seek service. A recent study by Cokley et al. (2014) revealed approximately 4.3 million or 39% of African-American children under the age of 18 are living in poverty. This study provides support demonstrating youth and children living in high-poverty areas are more likely to experience stressors and often have insufficient resources to adequately meet their mental health needs. In addition, research by Samaan (2000) also found children who live in poverty are more likely to experience higher rates of internalizing symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or withdrawal.

These findings illustrate that children who live in persistent poverty are at higher risk for mental illness, and in greater need of mental health treatment.

Chow et al. (2003) noted that minority children from high-poverty communities were more likely to be referred for mental health treatment through social services, child protective services, or the child welfare system. Regardless of poverty level, minorities were less likely than Caucasians to seek, initiate, or refer themselves for treatment on their own accord. Further, minorities were at higher risk for involuntary commitment and more likely to be referred by law enforcement.

Access to primary care was also an issue for minorities who were more likely to use emergency services in comparison to their white counterparts. These findings suggest the use of mental health services with minorities are more forceful (involuntary treatment or hospitalization) and less voluntary (outpatient services). According to Ayalon and Alivdrez (2010), when minorities seek mental health services, they tend to have fewer visits and are less likely to follow treatment recommendations in comparison to Whites. Moreover, prior research provides evidence that limited access to preventive services may be contributing to higher rates of hospitalization, longer lengths of stays in inpatient settings, and less treatment through outpatient settings (Ayalon & Alvidrez, 2010; Chow et al., 2003; Hines-Martin, Usui, Kim, & Furr, 2004).

Taken together, these findings illustrate that treatment outcomes for minorities are less favorable than Whites.

School-to-Prison Pipeline

A robust body of literature has indicated that minority children living in high-poverty communities encounter significant stressors, which predispose them to greater risk for mental health problems, substance abuse issues, suspension or expulsion, school dropout, criminalization, and incarceration (Chow et al., 2003, Cokley, 2014; Samaan, 2000; Skiba et al., 2011; Stillwell, 2009). These students are also more likely to be suspended or expelled for violating school policies. Students who are removed from school are also at greater risk of entering into the juvenile justice system (Skiba, 2008). This is referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. The school-to-prison pipeline can be described as the link between educational exclusion and the criminalization of minority children (Wilson, 2014). These children are often suspended or expelled from school as a result of zero tolerances policies. Under zero tolerance policies, students may be suspended or expelled for violating school rules such as possession of firearms, drugs (tobacco, alcohol, controlled substances, etc.), fighting, defiance, and disruptive behavior. Such policies are strict, uncompromising, result in automatic punishments, and tend to increase rates of disproportionality (Skiba, 2004).

Again, the removal of minority students from classrooms for disciplinary infractions often results in negative effects on student outcomes. Research has shown that students who are excluded from school are at higher risk for failure, grade retention, and dropping out of school (Stillwell, 2009; Skiba 2008). Students who have been excluded from school have lower scores on standardized and state assessments. Also, students that have been removed from school due to suspension or expulsion are more likely to have poorer academic performance due to missed instruction.

These statistics are especially disheartening for African-American males, who are referred for disciplinary infractions at disproportionate rates and more likely to receive office discipline referrals (ODRs) in comparison to Caucasian students. Additionally, African- American males have lower high school graduation rates and higher drop-out rates in grades 9- 12 (Stillwell, 2009). Moreover, African-American males have historically been suspended and expelled at significantly higher rates than their counterparts (Skiba et al., 2005).

Despite these alarming statistics, the mental health needs of minority students and especially African-American males, are often left untreated. Taken together, these students are more likely to receive ODRs, be removed from school, are at increased risk of dropping out of school and entering into the juvenile justice system. Therefore, the need exists for evidence-based mental-health interventions, which support the social and emotional well-being of minority students from high- poverty communities.

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