a young Black girl looking frustrated while doing her schoolwork in class

Kaliris lovingly describes her son Sebastian (last names omitted for privacy) as someone with “big emotions.” According to his mother, Sebastian started to struggle with regulating his emotions around age 3, and soon he began to run away from his teachers or “hide in cubicles.” Sebastian was eventually categorized as “emotionally disturbed” and paired with a paraeducator, an aide who provides one-on-one support during school.

At first, Kaliris was worried for Sebastian’s safety in school as he worked with his para to regulate his outbursts and manage his general mistrust of adults. Sebastian attends a New York City public school where he and other Black students accounted for less than 25% of the city’s student population in the 2018-19 school year but 49% of students categorized as “emotionally disturbed.” 

While advocates have long supported a label that more accurately represents ED students, they also acknowledge that solely changing the label is not enough. Advocates hope a label change will also bring much needed resources, as well as address the over-policing of this vulnerable population of students. 

The New York State Education Department (NYSED) defines emotional disturbance, or ED, as a student being unable to maintain “satisfactory” relationships with peers and teachers, as well as a student appearing to have a “general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.” 

Advocates have pointed out how stigmatizing the ED label can be and how it negatively impacts students of color. Students classified as emotionally disturbed are grouped with other students with disabilities, a majority of whom are Black, Latinx, and low income. Black students are often labeled as emotionally disturbed for behaving in ways that do not lead to the same stigmatization of white students. 

“It’s overly broad. It’s subjective, it’s vague, and once you have subjectivity, you have a greater likelihood of bias,” said Dawn Yuster, Esq., director of the School Justice Project for Advocates for Children. Last year, Advocates for Children released an update to their report, “Police Response to Students in Emotional Crisis: A Call for Comprehensive Mental Health and Social-Emotional Support for Students in Police-Free Schools,” which showed that disabled students—which includes students labeled ED—are more likely to be removed from schools, or restrained by the police and school safety agents. 

Students with an ED classification are often segregated into District 75, New York City’s designation for classrooms, programs, or entire schools that provide specialized support for disabled students. Advocates for Children’s report found that while District 75 students only make up 2.3% of the public school student population, over 9% “child in crisis” interventions involving the use of handcuffs between 2018 and 2020 happened at a District 75 school. This analysis also notes that during the same period more than one-in-five students handcuffed while in crisis was a District 75 student.

“Our data suggests that low-income Black students with emotional and behavioral disabilities are disproportionately referred to some District 75 schools where they are segregated from their peers, heavily policed, and may not be receiving the therapeutic support and services that they need,” said Yuster. She went on to explain how students of color are often miscategorized as emotionally disturbed by adding, “a lot of these [disruptive] behaviors are manifestations of woefully deficient services, inappropriate diagnoses, or an unmet academic learning behavioral need.” 

Advocates and families agree that the emotional disturbance label poses a great risk to students of color and impacts their academic performance overall. In the 2020-21 school year, the graduation rate for students with disabilities was 58%, compared to the citywide graduation rate of 81%. 

Fortunately, Sebastian has not been required to attend a District 75 school and has been thriving with the support of his para, another Black male. Kaliris is grateful to have a strong network in Sebastian’s school and acknowledges that not all students of color labeled with ED receive the same quality of treatment. “I’ve talked to many other parents that would have never agreed to have this designation because of that stigma,” says Kaliris. 

But New York State education advocates and officials are hoping Sebastian’s experience can become normalized for other disabled students by changing how students with ED are categorized. Later this year, the New York Board of Regents will vote on whether to replace the “emotionally disturbed” label with “emotional disability.” 

If the proposal passes, New York will join 12 other states that use “emotional disability” to categorize students who struggle to regulate their behavior or suffer from certain mental illnesses. This change is a welcome effort to use less harmful and more inclusive terms for students, but advocates and families say the state’s education department must do more to ensure disabled students are receiving adequate care. 

“I’m glad that we have finally acknowledged that calling a child emotionally disturbed is something that chips away at their humanity,” said Tajh Sutton. Sutton is a member of the steering committee for Parents For Responsive Equitable Safe Schools (PRESS NYC).

Advocates agree that the label change does not go far enough to address what disabled students really need. While Sutton is encouraged by the upcoming vote to change the designation, she adds, “we need the system to come to terms with all the other ways—all the structural ways—we constantly dehumanize students with disabilities, and really look at that intersection of race and ability. And be accountable.” 

Sebastian is currently in the fifth grade, and Kaliris hopes he can attend a “progressive” middle school when the time comes. She and Sebastian are both well aware of the barriers he and other students of color face when they are disabled. 

Kaliris laments that inclusive and safe learning environments for students of color are limited in New York City. “[Sebastian’s school] has such a rich history with East Harlem and is trying to bring progressive education to Black and Latino students,” she says. “And we don’t have as many options here for our kids, and so we’ll keep fighting for that.” 

But Kaliris, Yuster, and Sutton are all hopeful that this small change in categorization can lead to better and more targeted support for students with “big emotions” like Sebastian. 

“Changing the name is great, but it’s not going to change the lived experiences,” Sutton concludes. “We don’t want to see things change on paper. We want to see outcomes change. We want to see resources provided. We want to see proper care administered.”

Jenika McCrayer began her freelance journalism career in 2014 with Everyday Feminism and has since covered issues related to gender, mental health, and social justice. Follow her on Twitter @JenikaMc.