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Recognizing Trauma: Why school discipline reform needs to consider student homelessness

Download PDF of the full policy brief 

By Jennifer Erb-Downward and Michael Blakeslee


Michigan thrives when its children thrive. While policymakers, educators, and families all know this to be true, widespread use of suspension by the state’s public schools is leaving lasting scars on students. Compared to other states, Michigan schools have some of the highest suspension rates in the country. Two school districts rank among the top 10 nationally for suspensions among elementary schoolchildren and the state’s out-of-school suspension rate in school year 2015-16 was two percentage points higher than the national average (7% vs. 5%, respectively). Extensive research has linked both suspensions and expulsions to negative educational and life outcomes for children, including lower rates of proficiency on state math and English Language Arts examinations and increase in the risk of dropping out of school. Even 12 years later, suspended youth are less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree and are more likely to have been arrested or on probation than their peers who were not suspended. By comparison, research shows that positive school culture and the implementation of restorative justice and trauma-informed approaches reduce both in-school discipline referrals and out-of-school suspensions. In a study of 18 school districts across multiple geographies, districts that implemented restorative practice experienced an 8% decrease in middle school out-of-school suspensions, as well as a 43% drop in the number of Black youth referred to the juvenile justice system for school offenses. Similarly, research has highlighted the importance of school culture in efforts to reduce disciplinary actions.

One key finding that repeatedly emerges in the research on how to improve school disciplinary practices is the importance of recognizing and understanding experiences of trauma in children. The fight-or-flight response, which can be easily triggered in children who have experienced trauma, is often misunderstood as a disciplinary issue. Approaching reactions driven by trauma in children with harsh disciplinary consequences does not improve the behavior in question and often re-traumatizes the child. One cause of trauma that is increasingly common among children is homelessness. In Michigan, roughly 1 in 10 students (9.5%) have experienced homelessness by the time they graduate or leave high school. This risk is even greater for Black and Hispanic students, with 15.7% and 13.6%, respectively, experiencing homelessness at some point during their K-12 years. Efforts to improve behavioral interventions in school are benefited by identifying the students who are most at risk of experiencing disciplinary actions. As the state looks to identify ways to reduce unnecessary disciplinary action and incorporate practices of restorative justice, it is important to understand factors that may contribute to inappropriate use of suspension and expulsion. One potential factor that has not yet been explored in Michigan is the relationship between experiencing homelessness and the likelihood of facing disciplinary action.

This brief uses data from the Michigan Department of Education to explore suspension and expulsion rates among students who have experienced homelessness compared to their housed peers. The analysis finds both currently and formerly homeless students face much higher rates of disciplinary action. Policy recommendations for disciplinary practices that meet the developmental needs of children and teachers and promote thriving educational environments draw on models implemented in other states.

Key Findings

  • Greater economic and housing instability is associated with higher rates of disciplinary action. Housed students who were economically disadvantaged were suspended at rates close to three times those of their housed peers who were not economically disadvantaged (11% vs. 4%, respectively). Homeless students faced even higher rates of disciplinary action at 16%.
  • The association between homelessness and higher rates of disciplinary action persisted even after stable housing was found. Michigan students who were currently housed but had experienced homelessness at any point in the last eight years were disciplined at rates even higher than their currently homeless peers (18% vs. 16%, respectively).
  • A strong intersection exists between race, economic security, and housing stability when it comes to disciplinary action rates for Michigan’s students. While across all races and ethnicities the same pattern persists, with formerly homeless students facing the highest rates of suspension and expulsion, Black students are disproportionately impacted. The U.S. has a long history of criminalizing Black people, and the pattern extends to the inequitable application of school discipline policies. Among students who were formerly homeless, Black students faced disciplinary action at close to four times the rate of their Asian formerly homeless peers (27% vs. 7%).
  • Even very young elementary students who experienced homelessness faced high rates of suspension. In SY 2017-18, 9% of ever-homeless children in second grade and under were suspended or expelled. This disciplinary action rate is on par with high school students who had never experienced homelessness (8%).

Policy Recommendations

A child’s experience of homelessness should be added as an eighth factor that all schools must consider prior to the removal of any student from school. Presently, schools are required to consider seven factors prior to any school removal, but the experience of homelessness is not yet one of those factors. Data show that both currently and formerly homeless students in Michigan face a significantly higher risk than their always-housed peers of being suspended or expelled. These disciplinary actions also have a greater potential to have far-reaching negative impacts on the lives of students who have experienced homelessness. Removals with no ongoing services or alternative placement can jeopardize parental employment and job searches, as well impact food access, mental health, and academic supports. Adding homelessness as an eighth factor of consideration would also serve to provide a structure through which McKinney-Vento liaisons could be involved prior to any removal from school. Liaisons may already know the family and, if not, they can assess barriers and needs, as well as connect students to internal school resources and cross-agency supports. The liaison may be able to assist in exploring alternatives to removal that address the trauma underlying a student’s behavior.

End the use of long-term suspensions and expulsions, as well as cumulative suspensions or removals exceeding 10 days, in elementary school (PK-fifth grade), except in extreme cases that fall under the state mandate. Research on child development and trauma suggest that in the vast majority of cases, harsh disciplinary practices for young children lead to more harm than good, often perpetuating the negative behavior and setting the stage for future disciplinary issues. Ending the use of suspensions and expulsions for young children would encourage schools to identify developmentally appropriate alternatives that help students to more effectively process and manage strong emotions.

Raise awareness in schools about supports available from Michigan’s Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Technical Assistance Center (MiMTSS TA Center). In order to address behavioral issues without the use of suspensions or expulsions, teachers and schools may need additional training and resources. MiMTSS TA Center can provide schools with technical assistance including training on Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which integrates with social-emotional and mental health supports to reduce student suspension and expulsion and improve academic and behavioral outcomes for students.

Ensure schools and districts do not have attendance, homework, and credit-earning polices that create barriers to full school engagement for students experiencing homelessness. Challenges caused by homelessness may prevent students from being able to submit assignments when they are due or to meet policies that exist around attendance. Policies that result in suspensions may add to the disproportionate numbers identified in this report. Schools and districts should review and modify policies that create additional barriers to full school engagement for students experiencing homelessness. District policies around credit earning options could leverage the flexibility inherent in the Michigan Merit Curriculum legislation, including the use of personal curriculum, to help teachers, schools, and districts meet homeless students’ needs. Improvements in these areas would not only help homeless students succeed but would also prevent classroom tensions and stress that may lead to behavioral issues.

Leverage American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ARP ESSER) funding to train specific individuals for emergencies or high-conflict interactions to provide de-escalation in schools. Given the complexity of homeless-induced trauma, it is critical to have trained individuals onsite to help remedy dire situations. Chicago has introduced Social-Emotional Learning Specialists, who assist school staff in behavior management and social-emotional development, regularly check suspension
data in schools, and follow up if data are concerning. This would support and expand upon the state’s existing work on social emotional learning.

Expand programs and funding that increase mindfulness and mental health supports and infrastructure in schools, and ensure students who have experienced homelessness are able to participate in program activities. Ensuring that
students who have experienced homelessness have access to mindfulness and other mental health supports is of particular importance because homelessness is linked to higher rates of depression and anxiety, both of which have been associated with an increased risk of disciplinary action.

Incorporate training on school discipline, trauma, and homelessness into the credentialing process for homeless liaisons and continuing education credentials for school administrators. Presently, a lack of awareness about homelessness and its mental
health impacts is a barrier to ensuring students who have experienced homeless are connected to appropriate supports. Providing training to both frontline liaisons and school administrators would promote the development of a positive school culture and climate that embraces mental health and socialmotional learning as a key part of education.

Download PDF of the full policy brief