Seth Murrell, a four-year-old boy with dreadlocks to his chin, moved with his family to Atlanta in the fall of 2015. On his first day at his new preschool, he cried the whole morning. He wouldn’t sit still in his chair. He’d pop up and snatch the glasses off a classmate’s face, or spit at the teacher. When he was tired, he waved his arms in the air, begging his teacher to hold him. On the rare occasions that his teacher complimented him, he shouted “Yay!” too loudly.
His mother, Latoya Martin, a hair stylist, had moved with her husband and three children from Donalsonville, a rural town in Seminole County, in the southwest corner of Georgia, to be closer to psychiatrists and neurologists who would understand why her son was developmentally delayed. He couldn’t string words together into a sentence. His teachers called Latoya nearly every day and told her to pick him up early, because he was disrupting the class. When Latoya resisted—she was busy looking for a new job—her friends warned her that the school might call child-protective services if she couldn’t pick up Seth promptly. Latoya sensed that the teachers were accusing her of being a bad parent, so she informed the school’s principal that she had never done drugs and that in high school her G.P.A. had been 4.0. Latoya’s sister Anita said, “They kept saying we needed to work with him more at home. I’m, like, we work with him—that’s not the problem. This is part of his disability!”