Flint, MI— At Flint Community Schools, 40.5% of students who have experienced homelessness were suspended or expelled during the 2017-2018 school year, according to a report by the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions.

Also according the the report: That’s high. Michigan’s statewide average discipline rate among homeless students is 17%.

The researchers analyzed suspension and expulsion data for 537 non-charter public school districts during the 2017-2018 school year and found that Flint schools ranked the third highest in the state for discipline among homeless and formerly homeless students.
Beecher Community Schools ranked fifth highest in the state, with a discipline rate of 38.7% for homeless students.

“It’s our mission at Flint Community Schools to provide our scholars with the resources they need to grow academically, socially, and emotionally. Our goal is and always will be to support our scholars to the best of our ability, and every day we strive to offer our families with continued support, no matter the stage of life they are in. If a family finds themselves displaced, Flint Community Schools has numerous tools they can turn to for support,” Flint Community Schools Superintendent Kevelin Jones wrote in an email to Flint Beat. “Flint Community Schools has the best intent for every scholar who walks through our halls, and we are here as a school community to help our families when they need it most.”

Beecher schools did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Both districts are two times higher than the statewide average discipline rate among homeless students. They are also more than twice the statewide discipline rate for all students, 8%. Flint has a 34.7% discipline rate for all students, and Beecher has a 22.1% rate.

“I think the bottom line here is if you’re suspending roughly a third of the students in your school district, every year, you’re not providing kids with an education. You’re not actually addressing the problems that need to be dealt with,” Jennifer Erb-Downward, senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at UM, said.

Homelessness creates trauma, which affects student behavior, Erb-Downward said.

“Once a student is formerly homeless, they are still dealing with the trauma. … If you’re no longer currently homeless, no one knows that you need that extra help. There’s nobody even watching out, really,” she said.

In his statement, Jones said the district recognizes the difficulties associated with student homelessness.

“We know how challenging it can be on a family, and on a scholar, and what the impacts of being displaced can do. We also know that life challenges may affect scholars’ behavior, and therefore, if a scholar is facing suspension or expulsion based on their actions at school, Flint Community Schools will follow our process, doing all that we can to help that scholar get back on track,” Jones said.

Courtesy of the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions

Erb-Downward and Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the nonprofit Student Advocacy Center of Michigan, have spearheaded the study into homeless children for the last six years.

They created an interactive map, color-coded by district, based on the discipline rates of students.

“You can cross from one school district to (another) across the street. And you do the same behavior in both. In one, you might be expelled for 60 or 180 days, and the other one, they’re going to really try to work with you and do something different,” Stone-Palmquist said. “So, I think, in some ways, that map shows that there’s a different willingness, creativity, to do things differently in different places.”

The ten 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 Community Schools 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%.

Courtesy of the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions

Race is a factor, too, she said. Students who were Black and formerly homeless had the highest rates of suspension and expulsion across the state, around 27%. At Flint schools, 74% of students are Black. 

To lower discipline rates, districts first have to recognize there is a problem, Erb-Downward said.

“A lot of those policies are driven by local school districts in terms of how discipline is implemented. And our hypothesis is that a lot of school districts don’t even realize that they’re suspending or expelling students who’ve experienced homelessness more often,” she said. 

Since the water crisis, Flint schools have seen a rise in the number of special education students as well as more significant behavioral issues, Melinda Carroll, director of learning support services at Flint schools said.

Courtesy of the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions

Erb-Downward said she’s worked with students who have experienced lead poisoning, and one of the main symptoms is poor impulse control. The trauma from homelessness combined with trauma from the water crisis is a “huge” issue regarding high discipline rates at Flint schools, she said. However, she added, schools are still obligated to educate.

“Whether it’s a result of lead poisoning, whether it’s the result of homelessness, whether it’s the result of other traumas that students have experienced, their behavior is saying that this system is not working for them,” Erb-Downward said.

The researchers are working on a letter to send to the districts that have been identified as having high discipline rates, Stone-Palmquist said.

“We’re suggesting that these districts (should) have some community conversations, where there’s an education around the harm of harsh discipline,” Stone-Palmquist said.

She also recommends that districts identify their core values, reevaluate their code of conduct, and develop an intervention plan with multiple tiers. Students at the University of Michigan are also able to volunteer and assist districts with writing a report with recommendations.

“Children have a right to an Education. And that doesn’t mean that we can just put them into school and say they’re being educated. We have to figure out how do we meet their needs and provide them with an education that enables them to succeed,” Erb-Downward said.

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Carmen Nesbitt

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...