Neither Could He Breathe: Exceptionality, Victimization, and the Death of Elijah McClain

Mark Hess with Kristina H. Collins

“I am just different,” he said, and then Elijah McClain apologized and asked for forgiveness.

In August of 2019, Aurora, Colorado police stopped Elijah McClain for “suspicious behavior.” Elijah had committed no crime, but a struggle ensued in which police used a carotid hold to subdue him, handcuffed him face down, and held him until paramedics arrived 15 minutes later. Paramedics injected the young Black man with ketamine. On the way to the hospital, Elijah suffered a heart attack.  He died two days later, having been declared brain dead and never having emerged from a coma. His last words, including his apology and plea for forgiveness, were a part of his plea for mercy. In the last minutes before he lost consciousness, Elijah apologized four times and asked for forgiveness twice. That night in 2019, a tragic convergence of exceptionalities claimed a precious life.

Elijah’s mother, Sheneen McClain, understood early on that her son was intellectually gifted, taking his own learning and discipline seriously (Unlikely Suspect:  Those Who Knew Elijah Balk at Aurora Police Account of His Death by Grant Stringer. The Sentinel. October 27, 2019). By the time he was a teenager, Elijah had taught himself to play guitar, piano, and violin. On lunch breaks from his job as a massage therapist, he often walked to a nearby animal shelter to play his violin for abandoned cats in hopes that his music would soothe them and ease their loneliness.  Friends describe Elijah as gentlest of souls--tolerant, accepting, and in search of higher knowledge.  He described himself as an introvert.  At the end of interactions with others, Elijah typically bowed warmly—his gratitude bow.  April Young, a friend, describes Elijah as having a child-like spirit and not conditioned to societal norms: “He was never into . . . fitting in. He just was who he was.” 

Many of our gifted learners don’t seem to fit. They experience the world in a richly textured way, intuitively make connections others do not, think in abstractions, and carry a strong sense of justice. Not fitting in--being who he was--likely led to Elijah’s death. On the night of his death, Elijah had gone to a neighborhood convenience store to purchase tea. He wore a face mask he often wore—first as a runner to wick away moisture and provide warmth, and then more frequently because he was anemic and always cold, even on the hot summer nights. Those who knew him best speculate that the mask helped Elijah feel more comfortable because of social anxiety—a protection and security that helped his confidence. That night, police received a report of someone exhibiting suspicious behavior, wearing a mask, and waving his hands. Friends believe that Elijah—a highly energetic person who sometimes did handstands to pass the time—may have been listening to music and dancing. Twenty minutes after his encounter with Aurora police, his heart would stop beating as he was transported to a nearby hospital.

It must be noted that McClain’s family has never specifically stated that he was neurologically diverse. His friends’ descriptions and his final words lead many to infer, however, that Elijah may have been on the autism spectrum.  Jackie Spinner, the parent of a neurologically diverse son and associate professor at Columbia College in Chicago, wrote in an opinion piece for the Washington Post (Elijah McClain’s Final Words Haunt Me as the Parent of a Child Who is “Different.”  June 29, 2020), “I only knew that being different and Black in America means that my son is vulnerable if stopped by police. A 2016 report, analyzing incidents from 2013 to 2015, found that nearly half the people killed by police had some sort of disability.  A 2019 study of police involved deaths found 1 in every 1,000 black men is at risk of being killed by law enforcement.”

We have come to know the term twice-exceptional (2e) to describe students who are both gifted and who are also challenged with a learning disability. What if, however, we consider the impact of an additional influence—cultural exceptionality? In a sidebar note to be published by Parenting for High Potential in September of 2020, Dr. Kristina Henry Collins states that Elijah’s story of victimization as a possible multi-exceptional student began long before his encounter with Aurora police. For students like Elijah McClain, cultural exceptionality-- “uncommon underrepresented and/or perceived deficit-based social and cultural differences--is a source for systemic and institutional victimization of gifted Black students. Collins contends that, in such cases cultural differences, distinguished from cultural diversity, are marginalized, othered, and approached, oftentimes, as a cultural conflict.”

For Black gifted students, George Floyd’s words, I can’t breathe, are a poignant echo and metaphor. Eric Garner was heard saying I can’t breathe eleven times while his face was held down against the sidewalk. In audio from Elijah McClain, he begins to cry before he speaks his final words which begin with an apology, “Oh, I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly.”  Dr. Collins and her colleagues—many of which include gifted education’s most renowned scholars—have formed The Consortium for Inclusion of Underrepresented Racial Groups in Gifted Education (I-URGGE).  I-URGGE echoes I can’t breathe in a refrain which forms a poignant statement against the victimization of gifted Black students:

  • I can’t breathe because of biased, unfair tests that prevent me from being identified as gifted.
  • I can’t breathe because of how predominantly White programs and curricular materials marginalize and minimize my experiences.
  • I can’t breathe because I do not see teachers in gifted and talented programs who look like me.
  • I can’t breathe because I feel alone and isolated in predominantly White gifted and talented classes.
  • I can’t breathe because educators won’t allow me to be in advanced programs.
  • I can’t breathe when I, as a Black parent/caregiver, have to worry about my child’s socio-emotional and physical well-being, health, and safety in GATE classes.
  • I can’t breathe because I am an educator in GATE trying to share culturally responsive practices to support gifted and talented Black students, but audiences prefer a traditional curriculum.
  • I can’t breathe because I am a GATE expert, and talking about scientific racism makes me “an antagonist” in the field, which threatens my scholarly opportunities.

We can’t know what Elijah McClain thought during those last traumatic moments. At one point, he calls out, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” Was his gifted mind, in this moment, leaping to the root cause of his ordeal? Was Elijah bringing the vast capacity of gifted individuals for empathy and compassion to a situation in which he was the victim? Was he, even as police officers pinned him to the ground for being different, calling for unity and understanding?  I-URGGE calls for “bystanders to stop watching and, instead, advocate and compel others to join in the fight for racial justice in gifted and talented education for ALL.” Many groups have followed suit with strong vision statements--including NAGC and many of their state affiliates.  In a move toward these ends, NAGC has established next steps in their equity and social justice initiative. These next steps include cancelling the publication of their planned special issue of Gifted Child Quarterly commemorating the anniversary of Lewis Terman's longitudinal study, whose views of race and eugenics cast shadows on his research.

Systems do not move without the individuals who, collectively, move them. But where do we start? Kimberly Smith, Executive Director of the League of Innovative Schools at Digital Promise, has begun a campaign for individuals’ call to action. In her July 7th webinar, Smith urged White co-conspirators to combat racism in schools. “Use some of your privilege,” she suggested. “You’re not going to run out of it. You’ll still have it tomorrow.” In her article for the NAGC blog, Jessica Stargardter outlines steps she is taking as a gifted White educator. Her suggestions follow specific steps outlined in the Culturally Responsive Equity-Based Bill of Rights for Gifted Students of Color.  Dr. Gloria Taradash suggests that we must begin by becoming aware of our own biases: “When you know better, do better” (SENGinar Townhall, July 23, 2020). Furthermore, as individual actions grow to institutional and systemic changes, Dr. Ken Dixon urges us to engage in the uncomfortable conversations about race using Glenn E. Singleton’s tools set forth in Courageous Conversations About Race (SENGinar Townhall, July 21, 2020), and then follow up with courageous, deliberate action.”

Part of the cruelty of victimization is a paradox in which victims internalize blame and apologize for being themselves. It happens to gifted kids who face bullies on the playground, gifted girls whose bullies broadcast cruelty to social-media, people at their jobs and in their chosen fields of study, and systemically across the globe. Four times Elijah McClain apologized while he was held in a chokehold. Twice he asked for forgiveness. Just minutes before, surveillance footage from the night his heart stopped beating shows Elijah McClain in the gas station standing in line, waiting to buy tea. Other people in line appear to be laughing and chatting with him. Before he departs, Elijah turns and offers his gratitude bow to others in the store. For his grace, his compassion, his willingness to be who he is, we might understand that we have important lessons to learn from the Elijah McClains in this world.


Ford, D.Y., Dickson, K.T., Lawson Davis, J., Trotman Scott, M., and Grantham, T.C. (2018).  A culturally responsive equity-based Bill of Rights for gifted students of color.  Gifted Child Today, 41(3), 125-129.

Stringer, Grant.  Unlikely Suspect:  Those Who Knew Elijah Balk at Aurora Police Account of His Death. The Sentinel.  October 27, 2019

Mark Hess’s Growing Up Gifted and Generation Z articles have appeared in the NAGC blog throughout 2020.  He is a member of SENG’s Education and Editorial Committee, Co-Chair of the Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented’s Diverse Populations Committee, and Gifted Programs Specialist in Colorado Springs District 11.  Mark has three social-emotional curriculum books to be published by Prufrock Press in the spring of 2020.

Dr. Kristina Henry Collins  is the core faculty for Talent Development at Texas State University. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Ed.S. in Gifted and Creative Education (University of Georgia). Her research focuses on social, emotional, and cultural (SEC) contexts of gifted and talent development; STEM identity development in underrepresented students; and mentoring across the lifespan. Dr. Collins serves as President of SENG and is member-at-large for NAGC Board of Directors.

I-URGGE Mission Statement Authors: Dr. Tarek C Grantham, Dr. Donna Y. Ford, Dr. Joy Lawson Davis, Dr. Michelle Frazier Trotman Scott, Mr. Ken Dickson, Dr. Gloria Taradash, Dr. Gilman Whiting, Dr. Carlita B. Cotton, Dr. Erinn F. Floyd, Dr. Kristina H. Collins, Dr. Brittany N. Anderson, Dr. Sonja Fox, Dr. Javetta J. Roberson

The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of NAGC