Florida’s New “School Safety” Law Discriminates Against Students With Mental Illnesses

a gavel resting in front of a scale.

Note: In an effort not to conflate the specific legal meanings of “mental illness” with the intentionally broad umbrella term “neurodivergent,” the following article predominantly uses the terms “mental health” and “mental illness” rather than “neurodivergent.” However, in certain cases activists use “neurodivergent” to refer to themselves or groups affected; in this case their use of neurodivergent is included.

In the wake of the Parkland school shootings, Florida recently passed a law “relating to student discipline and school safety” which will impact students with mental illnesses, such as mood disorders and psychoses.

Statute 1006.07(1)(b) states that when registering for public school, the student must disclose “referrals to mental health services the student has had.” The law is vague, and it is not clear if people will try to apply it to students with a broader array of diagnoses such as learning disorders and personality disorders.

Additionally, the law also states under subsection 1006.07(7)(a) that a “threat assessment team” which includes law enforcement may be called when a student is deemed a threat to themself or others.

Mental health advocates have raised concerns about whether this requirement will have the desired effect of making schools safer, or if it will simply stigmatize neurodivergent students.

Noor P., a community organizer, raised the issue of how this legislation will particularly impact students of color. “I would like people to know it is unethical and it WILL make people hesitant to treat their kids. ESPECIALLY people of color,” Noor said. “Have you seen the rates of behavioral disorders slapped on black kids? Have you seen how schools treat them? They’re fundamentally treated as burdens instead of offered accommodations…It is unacceptable.”

Neurodiversity activist and University of Iowa student Hailey Teusink said of the law, “Regardless of your intent, if you are introducing such a bill just after the Parkland tragedy, you are implicitly (end even subconsciously) drilling into people’s minds that neuordivergencies cause violence, despite evidence to the contrary.”

Teusink is correct, according to a 2015 review of evidence on the link between gun violence and mental illness published in the American Journal of Public Health. “At the aggregate level, the vast majority of people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders do not commit violent acts—only about 4% of violence in the United States can be attributed to people diagnosed with mental illness.”

Additionally, the research above found that rates of gun violence among mentally ill people are less than among those who do not have a mental illness.

Richard J. McNally is the Director of Clinical Training for the Harvard Department of Psychology, and also an advisor to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In an article published about his book, What Is Mental Illness?, McNally states that, “Individuals suffering from severe mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence.”

Research also indicates that victims of police shootings and brutality are likely to be disabled, and often have a mental illness. A 2016 article in The Guardian estimates “a third to half of all people killed by police in the US have a disability. In addition, according to [the Ruderman Foundation], almost all well-known and widely reported cases of police violence involve a disabled person.” (It is important to note, even when citing this research, that it has been recently critiqued in a noteworthy document entitled Accountable Reporting on Disability, Race, & Police Violence: A Community Response to the “Ruderman White Paper on the Media Coverage of Use of Force and Disability.”)

Furthermore, The Guardian notes that certain forms of mental illness may affect communication. Atypical communication in an encounter with police may be deadly if the officer feels “threatened” by stimming, psychosis, or use of ASL/Signed Languages.

Placing police officers in schools as part of a “threat assessment team” may not be the guarantor of student safety legislators intended, particularly if those students have a mental health problem that affects communication.

Caleb, a 17-year-old neurodivergent high school student, said of the Florida law, “This feels invasive…My mom told the teachers [about my diagnoses] so they could know how I learned.” Indeed, many schools are already aware of student’s mental illness if the student receives accommodations via an Individualized Education Program (IEP). Teusink also stated that as regards disclosing her mental health status to schools, “I had no choice in the matter — they HAD to know for my IEP.”

Azza Altiraifi, a disability and racial justice advocate in the DC metro area, has already experienced institutional discrimination as a result of seeking treatment. Speaking of her experience, Altiraifi says,“It almost derailed my undergraduate career entirely….The University treated my neurodivergences as a liability and threw me out of the school for all intents and purposes to evade any legal responsibility for what they feared I might do to myself and others.”

Asked about the effects of Florida’s new law, Altiraifi replied, “This will not only stigmatize students, but requiring such disclosures will make these students even more acutely vulnerable to both interpersonal and institutional violence and abuse. It does nothing to curb gun violence, but will cause immense harm to the most marginalized students.”

Parkland was awful. It joins the growing litany of mass shootings in the United States that serve as a condemnation of our collective failure to reduce gun violence.

Yet when we rush to take some action for the sake of doing something, is it actually better than nothing? Or are we hurting an already vulnerable population of mentally ill students to quell our collective conscience?

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Liz Moore is a chronically ill and neurodivergent disability rights activist and writer. They live on their couch on stolen Piscataway-Conoy and Manahoac land in the DC metro area. You can find them on twitter @untonuggan, or read more of their work at liminalnest.wordpress.com.