A new interactive map published by the University of Michigan found that students in Michigan who have experienced homelessness were twice as likely to be suspended or expelled as the statewide average of students who were suspended or expelled.
The data map is an extension from a report released by the U of M’s Poverty Solutions initiative that analyzed data from the 2017-18 school year. An estimated one in 10 Michigan students will experience homelessness by the time they leave their K-12 education, according to the report.
“The main takeaway really is that there is a lot of room for improvement and more investigation and research needs to be done, not only into the areas where the rates are really high, but into the areas of where the rates are low, to find out what is happening,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan.
The map shows that some districts had rates below 5%, while others had a rate of over 40%.
Only 50 out of 537 non-charter public school districts made up one-third of all students who were suspended or expelled in the 2017-18 school year. Those 50 school districts only served about 13% of students in Michigan. In 48 school districts, over 25% of students who had experienced homelessness were suspended or expelled.
The 10 school districts where discipline rates for students who had experienced homelessness were the highest included: Benton Harbor Area Schools at 41.1%, Atlanta Community Schools at 40.7%, Flint City School District at 40.5%, Kelloggsville Public Schools at 38.8%, Beecher Community School District at 38.7%, Alba Public Schools at 38.1%, Hamtramck Public Schools at 37.9%, Eastpointe Community Schools at 37.2%, Westwood Community Schools at 36.2%, and Kalamazoo Public School District at 34.9%.
None of these school districts responded to a request for comment.
There were 60 school districts that had no suspensions or expulsions reported in statewide data as a result of either zero suspensions or expulsions or their failure to report using these discipline practices.
Erb-Downward also highlighted the impacts of housing instability on students, saying many people do not accurately grasp the “impact that housing instability has on children from an educational perspective, or from a health perspective.”
“Reality is we have a lot of kids in the United States who are experiencing housing instability and homelessness and this type of instability really has an educational impact,” Erb-Downward said. “And it has a health impact that [and] has a mental health impact. If we don’t recognize that as a society, we’re not going to be able to provide the support that kids really need to succeed.”
A study by the American Institutes for Research found that, generally, suspensions do not disincentivize misbehavior in the future and that more severe school discipline translates into worse academic performance. Another 2018 study found that children, 12 years after a suspension, were less likely to go on to earn college degrees and were more likely to be arrested than students who never faced suspensions.
Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, said “it’s important for school districts to really take a close look, not to be defensive, but just to be curious about the data” from the U of M.
“We know that behavior is communication,” Stone-Palmquist said. “And we know that homelessness is experienced as a traumatic event for young people. So it makes sense that you might see an increase in behavior, both during homelessness and an after. I think what’s unfortunate and sad is that we’re not thinking about other ways to handle that behavior in schools.”
A package of bills introduced in the Michigan Legislature last yeartakes aim at reforming the state’s disciplinary systems, with the specific intention of mitigating the effects of zero-tolerance policies that were scrapped in 2016 after subjecting students to expulsions or suspensions after just one act of misconduct.
The bills, which haven’t moved from the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee, would establish guidelines for schools to release reports regarding how many days a student was suspended for; their race, ethnicity and gender; and their current economic and living situation. The bills also seek to establish due process for students facing disciplinary action as well as adding a living situation factor to the “seven factors” of whether a student should face disciplinary action.
Irwin told the Advance the U of M report “shines a light on how much of a problem” school disciplinary action is for students who have experienced homelessness.
“When folks are struggling to fit in, when folks are struggling to connect those positive elements of the community, it’s extra important that the community reach out and try to help them connect, because that’s healthy behavior,” Irwin said. “That’s how we get a healthy community.”
Erb-Downward said the interactive data map should also further empower state and local leaders to figure out better methods on “how to help kids navigate strong feelings and emotions” and to “create a school environment that’s safe” for all students.
“When we’re starting to suspend and expel one in 10 children who have ever experienced homelessness in their life up to that point, we’re not helping those kids who’ve experienced trauma and have some real challenges,” Erb-Downward said. “They need support.”
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