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Homeless students expelled four times more than others in Michigan schools

Brittney Barros
Brittney Barros struggled with homelessness while a K-12 student. Now, she’s an advocate for children in similar situations. (Bridge photo by Sophia Kalakailo)

When Brittney Barros was suspended in the fifth grade for six months due to too many absences and tardies, she was living in what she described as a nearly abandoned house with a roof caving in, mice, cockroaches and no heat. Later, after experiencing homelessness and years of going in and out of foster care, she faced several in-school suspensions her junior and senior year of high school.

Now 23, Barros is a social worker and an advocate for homeless and foster youth in metro Detroit. And while she graduated high school and college, many in similar childhood circumstances are not as lucky.

Current and former homeless students face disciplinary action including suspension and expulsion in Michigan public schools at a higher rate than their always-housed peers, according to an analysis from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative. 

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Those disciplinary actions can compound the already traumatic issues homeless students face, said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions.

“When you suspend or expel a child from school who's homeless or housing unstable, you're really removing from them the one location of consistency and stability that they have,”  Erb-Downward told Bridge Michigan. “You're making it a place that is not welcoming for them. And that is a really, really critical thing. There's a lot of research that shows that school stability, in the context of experiencing homelessness is really, really critical for kids, just for their mental health, for their overall well being, and then also for their educational well being.”

According to the analysis, an estimated one in 10 students in Michigan will experience homelessness by the time they graduate or leave school. These rates are even higher for Black and Latino students, at 16 percent and 14 percent, respectively. In the 2019-20 school year alone, there were about 33,000 students identified as homeless in Michigan public schools.

Those students face more disciplinary actions, which can lead to other problems. K-12 students who are suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to go to college and struggle in math in English Language Arts and Math in third through eighth grade. Because this is the trend for students overall, Erb-Downward said it’s likely that this is the case for students who have experienced homelessness, if not more so.

The study, which examined data collected by the Michigan Department of Education on public and charter schools from the 2017-2018 school year, the most recent data available, found that homeless or formerly homeless students were at least four times more likely to be suspended or expelled.  In the year studied, 18 percent of formerly homeless students, 16 percent of currently homeless students and 11 percent of economically disadvantaged but never homeless students were suspended or expelled. 

In contrast, only 4 percent of students not economically disadvantaged and never homeless were suspended or expelled.

Barros’ experiences in high school are an example of the challenges faced by homeless students, as well as the school officials charged with meting out discipline.

Barros became homeless the summer before ninth grade and remained that way for seven months. While homeless, her teachers at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti were very supportive, Barros said. Later though, when she had housing in her junior and senior year, Barros began facing many in-school suspensions that she said put her behind academically, especially in math. 

Erb-Downward said the higher rate of disciplinary action among formerly homeless students suggests those students are acting out due to trauma and being disciplined for it. 

Barros, for example, was late and absent from school very frequently after being homeless. “My senior year, I got truancy letters for tardiness and absences because I was just so depressed,” Barros said. “I just couldn't go to school. I was grieving a lot. And that was the aftermath of the traumatic experience of being homeless.”

The truancy letters and in school suspensions she received because of those absences and tardies only discouraged her more. Barros said that when formerly homeless students get suspended, they might feel “like a prisoner to their past and outcast to their homelessness experience.

“Really what we’re seeing here is trauma responses in children… that might be perceived as something that is in need of disciplinary action but really that child is in need of support,” Erb Downward said during the panel. “Disciplinary action is not going to resolve the problem and in fact often it can make the issues worse.”

Black students, currently or formerly homeless, faced significantly higher suspension and expulsion rates than their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts. 27 percent of Black students formerly homeless and 24 percent currently homeless were suspended or expelled in the 2017-2018 school year. In comparison, those rates are 14 and 13 percent for white students who have experienced homelessness.

Young students are also particularly impacted. In second grade and younger, almost one in 10 students experiencing homelessness were expelled. This increased in fourth through fifth grade to almost 16 percent and one in four middle school students who had ever experienced homelessness were suspended or expelled in the 2017-2018 school year.

Some school districts around the county are beginning to look for ways to help homeless students stay in school. 

The Chicago Public Schools hired social-emotional learning specialists that help manage behavior, social and emotional learning. The specialists were trained through a partnership with The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, an organization that provides expertise on social and emotional learning to school districts and policy leaders. 

According to the organization’s website, out-of-school suspension declined 76 percent since the 2012-2013 school year, in-school suspensions declined 41 percent since the 2012-2013 school year and expulsions were reduced by 59 percent.

Detroit Public Schools Community District has added a homelessness and foster care liaison to each of the 106 schools in the state’s largest district. By law, Michigan school districts are only required to have one such contact person.

Erb-Downward said having an advocate for students who have experienced homelessness at each school, instead of just one for the district, will help identify homeless students and get them support. 

Michelle Parker, assistant director of the office that manages the homelessness and foster care program, said the district is considering adding experiences of homeless as a factor considered before removing any student from school.

Policy recommendations for schools from the Poverty Solutions analysis include:

  • Adding a student’s experience of homelessness as a factor all schools must consider before removing any student from school.
  • Ending the use of long-term suspensions and expulsions and cumulative suspensions or removals exceeding 10 days in elementary school, excluding extreme cases that are state-mandated.
  • Ensuring schools and districts do not have attendance, homework, and credit-earning policies that create barriers to full school engagement for students experiencing homelessness. 
  • Training specific individuals to de-escalate emergencies or high-conflict interactions

“The data here really shows why taking (homelessness) into consideration is really important,” Erb-Downward said. “Homeless and formerly homeless students are being suspended at much, much higher rates than their peers and that suggests that the process  in Michigan that exists right now is not working for those students.”

Pandemic could increase suspensions

Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of Student Advocacy Center based in Ypsilanti, Jackson and Detroit, works as an advocate for students in disciplinary hearings, including suspensions and expulsions for students with homeless experience. She said oftentimes when students are expelled, they are placed into virtual schooling programs. Schools, she worries, will be less hesitant to remove students from in-person learning now that the pandemic has forced educators to become more experienced with virtual learning.

“Before the pandemic we were already seen over the last many years, more and more children and youth being placed into virtual school settings,” Stone-Palmquist said. “So like a behavior thing would happen – the won't even necessarily have a school discipline hearing – they’re just placed into these alternative schools that don't necessarily have the resources that students need, especially if they have disabilities or they're homeless.

“In our experience, very few students do very well in those programs,” she said. “I think we're doing them a disservice in terms of academics, in terms of social emotional interaction and support that students need.”

Erb-Downward added that student homelessness was already underreported and worried the pandemic will only exacerbate that.

“The longer a child who's homeless goes on unidentified, the longer they're not receiving the support to fully participate in school that they really need,” Erb-Downward said 

“The educational gaps that we already saw before the pandemic are going to be exacerbated. But I do think we have an opportunity to not have that be the story”

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