Wendy Lecker is a civil rights lawyer who writes frequently for the Stamford (CT) Advocate, where this article appeared.

The brutal police killing of yet another unarmed African-American man, Minneapolis’ George Floyd, preceded by the midnight police killing of EMT Breonna Taylor in her home in Louisville, and followed by the police killing of Louisville restaurant owner David McAtee, reinforce that Black Americans live a different reality than White Americans do.

It is not just the horrifying fact that African Americans are disproportionately the victims of police brutality. Medical research demonstrates that police killings of unarmed African Americans exacts a unique and lasting psychic toll on African Americans — beyond those directly affected by the killings. In a study published in the medical journal, The Lancet, researchers found that Black Americans exposed to police killings in their communities suffered adverse mental health effects, amounting to 55 million excess poor mental health days per year in the United States. Police killings are a serious, and avoidable, public health problem.

The spillover effect of police killings is also likely underestimated, as the researchers focused on the communities in which the killings occurred. With mainstream and social media, the effect of police killings extends far beyond that. Moreover, police killings are under-reported, thus not all were considered in the study.

The researchers found no spillover effect of these killings on White Americans, suggesting African Americans understand the killings in the context of structural racism that persists in America and impacts African Americans daily in a way that Whites do not experience.

Similar research has shown that aggressive policing, not even that rising to the level of killing, causes anxiety and trauma, particularly for young African Americans. One study, in the journal Pediatrics, reported that African-American children often suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from contact with the police. That contact can come in the form of racial profiling, arrest of a caregiver, or witnessing or suffering from police violence. Experts emphasize the need to document and monitor the effects of policing on African-American children to ensure they receive proper support.

While African Americans bear the brunt of these phenomena, they are caused by Whites. And it begins early. Studies have shown that at almost every age level, African-American boys and girls are routinely perceived as older and less innocent than they are, and than non-Black children.

These misperceptions, coupled with the negative experience children have with police, present serious implications for school policies. Schools can be places that aggravate, or mitigate, the deleterious mental health effects of structural racism. The presence of police officers in schools and punitive “zero tolerance” discipline policies have been shown to reinforce the trauma children experience outside school. Moreover, African-American children are disproportionately subjected to more and harsher discipline in school than non-Black children. This disproportionate punishment begins early, then follows children throughout their school career, contributing to the erroneous notion that African-American students behave badly. Harsher discipline is also more prevalent in more segregated schools. Disparities in discipline are linked to less academic and life success for African-American students.

Recent research from Princeton University found that racial disparities in school discipline are associated with county levels of racial bias. Thus, it is not only children who bring the trauma they experience outside school into their school experience. School staff bring the bias from their communities into their daily interaction with African-American students. Furthermore, if not properly identified as PTSD stemming from negative contact with the police, a child’s behavior can be mislabeled as attentive deficit hyperactivity disorder or another ill-fitting diagnosis, resulting in that child not receiving appropriate services.
African-American education advocates have for decades stressed the need for culturally relevant curricula, African-American teachers, bias training for White staff, and restorative justice practices, to combat the effects of racism. The recent medical and social science research supports their claims. Advocates have also clamored for integrated and well-resourced public schools, so that African-American students have adequate and equitable opportunities to learn and develop.

African-American students are currently experiencing trauma on top of trauma. The pandemic has exacted disparate harm on the Black community, causing loss of lives, livelihoods, and homes. This horror is now exacerbated by the new round of police brutality, which African Americans experience in a way Whites can neither share nor fully comprehend. When African-American children return to school, it is imperative that our schools be equipped to meet them where they are, with the support, training and services to help them feel safe, to heal and to learn.