When Brittney Barros was suspended in fifth grade for six months due to too many absences and delays, she lived in what she described as an almost abandoned house with a collapsing roof, mice, cockroaches and no heat. Later, after experiencing homelessness and years entering and leaving foster care, she faced several school suspensions during her early and late high school years.
Now 23, Barros is a social worker and advocate for homelessness and foster youth in metro Detroit. And although she graduated from high school and college, many in similar childhood circumstances aren’t so lucky.
Current and former homeless students face disciplinary action, including suspension and expulsion from Michigan public schools at a higher rate than their still housed peers, according to analysis from the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions initiative.
These disciplinary actions can exacerbate the already traumatic problems facing homeless students, said Jennifer Erb-Downward, senior research associate at Poverty Solutions.
âWhen you suspend or kick a child out of school who is homeless or has unstable housing, you are really taking away from them the only place of consistency and stability they have,â Erb-Downward said in Bridge Michigan. âYou make it a place that is not welcoming to them. And that’s a really, really critical thing. There is a lot of research that shows that school stability, in the context of homelessness is really, really critical for children, just for their mental health, for their general well-being, and then also for their well-being. educative.
According to the analysis, it is estimated that one in ten Michigan students will be homeless upon graduation or leaving school. These rates are even higher for black and Latino students, at 16 percent and 14 percent, respectively. In the 2019-2020 school year alone, approximately 33,000 students were identified as homeless in Michigan public schools.
These students face more disciplinary action, which can lead to further problems. Kindergarten to Grade 12 students who are suspended or expelled at some point in their school career are more likely to drop out of school, less likely to go to college, and struggle in math in English and mathematics for grades three to eight. Because that’s the trend for students overall, Erb-Downward said it’s likely to be the case for students who have experienced homelessness, if not more.
the study, which examined data collected by the Michigan Department of Education on public and charter schools for the 2017-18 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. During the year under review, 18 percent of former 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 non-economically disadvantaged and never homeless students have been suspended or expelled.
Barros’ experiences in high school are one example of the challenges faced by homeless students, as well as school officials charged with enforcing discipline.
Barros became homeless the summer before the ninth year and remained that way for seven months. While she was homeless, her teachers at Lincoln High School in Ypsilanti were very supportive, Barros said. Later however, while having accommodation during her junior and senior years, Barros began to face numerous school suspensions which she said put her behind academically, particularly in mathematics.
Erb-Downward said the higher rate of disciplinary action among homeless former students suggests that these students are acting because of trauma and are being punished for it.
Barros, for example, was very often late and absent from school after being homeless. âMy last year, I received truancy letters for late arrivals and absences because I was so depressed,â Barros said. âI just couldn’t go to school. I was in mourning. And that was the consequence of the traumatic experience of being homeless. “
The letters of absenteeism and the school suspensions she received because of these absences and delays only further discouraged her. Barros said that when former homeless students are suspended, they can feel “trapped in their past and excluded from their homeless experience.”
âReally what we’re seeing here are reactions to trauma in childrenâ¦ which might be seen as something that needs disciplinary action, but this child really needs support,â Erb Downward said during the panel. âDiscipline will not solve the problem and, in fact, it can often make problems worse. “
Black students, currently or formerly homeless, faced significantly higher suspension and expulsion rates than their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts. 27% of formerly homeless black students and 24% currently homeless were suspended or expelled in the 2017-18 school year. In comparison, those rates are 14 and 13 percent for white college students who have experienced homelessness.
Young students are also particularly affected. In the second year and younger, nearly one in ten homeless students has been expelled. This figure rose from fourth to fifth year to almost 16% and one in four college students who had experienced homelessness were suspended or expelled during the 2017-2018 school year.
Some school districts in the county are starting to look for ways to help homeless students stay in school.
Chicago Public Schools have hired socio-emotional learning specialists who help manage behavior, social and emotional learning. The specialists were trained thanks to 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 political leaders.
According to the organization’s website, out-of-school suspensions have decreased by 76 percent since the 2012-2013 school year, school-based suspensions have decreased by 41 percent since the 2012-2013 school year, and expulsions have increased. been reduced by 59 percent.
The Detroit Public School Community District has added a homeless and foster family link to each of the 106 schools in the state’s largest district. By law, Michigan school districts are only required to have one contact person.
Erb-Downward said having an advocate for students who have experienced homelessness in each school, instead of just one for the district, will help identify and support homeless students.
Michelle Parker, deputy director of the office that manages the Homelessness and Foster Care program, said the district is considering adding homeless experiences as a factor before removing a student from the school.
Policy recommendations for schools emerging from the analysis of solutions to poverty include:
- Add a student’s homelessness experience as a factor that all schools should consider before removing a student from school.
- End the use of long-term suspensions and expulsions and cumulative suspensions or withdrawals exceeding 10 days in elementary school, except in extreme cases mandated by the state.
- Ensure that schools and districts do not have attendance, homework, and credit policies that create barriers to full school engagement for homeless students.
- Train specific people to defuse emergencies or high-conflict interactions
âThe data here really shows why accounting for (roaming) is really important,â Erb-Downward said. “Homeless and formerly homeless students are suspended at rates much, much higher than their peers and this suggests that the process in Michigan that currently exists is not working for these students.”
Pandemic could increase suspensions
Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center based in Ypsilanti, Jackson and Detroit, works as a student advocate in disciplinary hearings, including suspensions and expulsions for homeless students. She said that often when students are kicked out, they are placed in virtual education programs. Schools, she worries, will be less reluctant to remove students from in-person learning now that the pandemic has forced educators to gain more experience with virtual learning.
âBefore the pandemic, we have already seen in recent years more and more children and young people placed in virtual schools,â Stone-Palmquist said. “So as if a behavior occurs – they won’t even necessarily have a hearing on school discipline – they’re just placed in these alternative schools that don’t necessarily have the resources that students need, especially if they have a disability or if they’re homeless.
âIn our experience, very few students do very well in these programs,â she said. “I think we are doing them a disservice in terms of academics, in terms of the social and emotional interaction and support that students need.”
Erb-Downward added that student homelessness was already underreported and feared the pandemic would only exacerbate it.
âThe longer a homeless child goes unidentified, the more they don’t get the support they really need to participate fully in school,â said Erb-Downward.
âThe educational gaps that we already saw before the pandemic are going to be exacerbated. But I think we have an opportunity not to let this be the story “