I know a 13-year-old who just entered the juvenile justice system, a revolving door for many minority kids with neurological differences. My hope is that this kid’s dual diagnosis of ADHD and a mood disorder will be his ticket to appropriate mental health services. His needs will not be met in juvenile detention.

I have known other African American kids with undiagnosed ADHD who have gotten into trouble at school, labeled precipitously as defiant—and seldom as hyperactive and impulsive. After repeated experiences of being misunderstood and feeling disrespected, they sometimes learn defiance in defense of their dignity. I read recently that more black kids are being diagnosed now, but they are seldom getting the help they need. 

Many years ago, I went to a middle school to help with an eighth grader’s individualized education plan (IEP). Teachers at this meeting were responsive to the mother’s concerns, and they constructed a thoughtful plan. As this productive meeting was about to end, the principal dropped in—a black principal—and he contributed just one thing: that this student’s only problem was “laziness.” Fortunately, no one there seemed to agree with him. He had not been part of the discussion about the student’s experiences and needs.

The following year, in the ninth grade, this same student “talked back” to a teacher who had embarrassed him, calling him out in front of his classmates. He was suspended for his reaction to her hurtful action. I asked him what was wrong with this picture: “A teacher speaks disrespectfully to you, and she gets to remain at school and get paid; then you react disrespectfully to her disrespect and get sent home.” He replied with a smile, “Terry, I hate it when you are right!” Those were his exact words.

Those are not words of a kid who values disrespecting a teacher, but a kid—a brilliant kid in my opinion—who was uncensored and sensitive to being disrespected. He longed to be understood and valued. An important person in his life explicitly favored his little brother, something his teachers probably didn’t know. One day a teacher “felt threatened” by him. He was a big kid with a big voice, and like his mom, he was assertive. The teacher was afraid of him. He was defiant and she wanted him expelled.

This impulsive young man had a gift. He was a budding artist, funny as any standup comedian I’ve seen, and a creative hip-hop lyricist. He needed encouragement but got mostly criticism from people he wished to please. He was like a flower needing food and water to blossom.

As an eighth-grader, one of his paintings was displayed at the Cheekwood Museum after placing third in a statewide art competition. In the ninth grade he was expelled from high school. He learned to dislike school. Imagine that!

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