Shambrika Crawford caught her daughter trying to board a Seattle city bus to avoid the school bus outside the homeless shelter they moved into over the summer.
Kids pick on her, her daughter said, and call her a “little dirty shelter kid.”
Crawford has advised her three school-age children to keep to themselves and try to fit in, but her daughter’s after-school detentions are starting to pile up. Before the family moved from Georgia to Washington for work, she didn’t get into that kind of trouble, Crawford said. The biggest complaint from her daughter’s teachers was that she sometimes lost focus in class and didn’t do her work.
But with so much upheaval, Crawford is worried what the recent bout of discipline means.
If things become more serious, the results could be life-changing.
Homeless students in Washington face the most severe punishments from school — suspension and expulsion — at almost three times the rate of their housed peers. A child’s housing status is an even greater predictor of discipline than race.
But while a major overhaul in the state education department’s discipline policy, passed in 2016, aimed to fix that racial disparity, there has been almost nothing done specifically for homeless students, even as education officials say they are well aware of the gap.
Experiencing homelessness as a child, even once, puts that child at a greater risk of poor academic performance, dropping out of school and being homeless as an adult, according to researchers.
Unhoused and Undercounted
Federal law requires that public schools assist homeless students to help break what could become an inescapable cycle of hardship. But many of the students who need that aid fall through the cracks.
When exclusionary discipline is added to these stressful circumstances, the chances of succeeding become more slim.
Children forced to leave school for their behavior are less likely to graduate — already a major obstacle for homeless students — and the likelihood of becoming involved in the juvenile legal system goes up.
“We need to reconcile or reckon with the fact that, like, ‘Are we OK with this?’” said Daniel Narváez Zavala, executive director of Building Changes, a Seattle organization that works with school districts to better support homeless students. “If we are not OK with that, we need to do something different.”
The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is collaborating with the Center for Public Integrity to examine how homeless students are faring in Washington and across the U.S. These stories also include a look at how one school district greatly improved graduation rates for homeless students, as well as how federal funding disparities disadvantage Washington.
Working from a punitive past
Since Washington state began tracking discipline data in 2014, the disproportionate use of exclusionary discipline on homeless students has held steady.
Across Washington state, 1 in 10 homeless students was required to leave school for disciplinary reasons during the 2018-19 school year, the last complete school year before the pandemic, compared to 1 out of every 25 housed students.
The only student group in Washington that receives more exclusionary discipline than homeless students is children in foster care, where nearly 1 in 7 were suspended or expelled in the 2018-2019 school year. These rates don’t take into account how many times an individual student is excluded from school within a school year.
When Washington overhauled its disciplinary guidelines in 2016, officials replaced 1970s-era language meant to punish students with rules that describe punishment as a last resort, said Maria Flores, executive director of the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s Center for the Improvement of Student Learning.
There’s been an increase in cultural competency training for Washington teachers and a host of preventive measures have been adopted to try to stem unruly behavior before things get out of hand, Flores explained. While these changes aren’t specifically geared to homeless students, state officials said they hope it also helps them.
Some districts say they suspend or expel for extreme issues, like violence and guns. But Flores said the agency is still seeing students suspended or expelled for what it considers minor, like failure to cooperate.
Homeless students, students in foster care, students with disabilities and Black, Native American and Alaskan Native students all face disproportionate levels of discipline.
A five-year study by Seattle’s Building Changes showed that racial disparities in discipline rates are also reflected within the homeless population, with Black students punished with the highest percentage of exclusionary discipline. In Washington, more than 60% of the state’s homeless population, totaling over 40,000 people, are students of color.
“What those disparities say to me is that our system isn’t working,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, director of housing stability programs and policy initiatives at the University of Michigan. “The fact that we see these gaps means that we don’t have a system that is equitable.”
Investments pay off for students
As one of the state’s agricultural hubs, Wenatchee schools serve a large population of children of migrant workers.
Most schools have a family advocate who focuses exclusively on serving homeless and migrant students, often groups that overlap, said Jeremy Wheatley, who oversees Wenatchee’s McKinney-Vento program. The federal program is aimed at guaranteeing equal access to education for homeless students, and every school district in the U.S. is required to have a staff member whose partial or sole job is to ensure compliance.
The district reported 4.7% of homeless students in the 2018-19 school year received exclusionary discipline — one-and-a-half times greater than the 3.1% of housed students, a substantially smaller difference compared to the state.
Wenatchee School District also employs two full-time staff members focused on the school district’s more than 500 homeless students.
Tukwila School District in South King County involves these liaisons when students have behavioral issues, and reports only 3% of homeless students are disciplined on average, while the state’s average is nearly 10%.
Liaisons often get a closer look at how homelessness impacts students.
As of 2016, Washington schools must provide education during a student’s exclusion and students can no longer be expelled for an indefinite amount of time. But that can be difficult if the student is staying in a busy, crowded shelter or doubled up with relatives or friends. Even more so if they are living in a tent or car.
If a homeless student is placed in out-of-school suspension, Tukwila district spokesperson Carrie Marting said, the McKinney-Vento liaison will work to make sure that student has a safe place to be in the daytime with food and technology.
Some school districts have also invested in staff whose mission is meeting the big and small needs of homeless students to raise graduation rates.
“If it weren’t for the people in the system, and the intentional use of dollars to put people in the right spot to support our students, we wouldn’t be anywhere,” said Wenatchee’s Wheatley.
Homelessness as a marker
Crawford said she’s visited her daughter’s middle school in South King County to speak with faculty there, but she’s worried they don’t fully understand what her family, especially her children, have had to face in recent months.
Crawford’s currently in a custody battle. She recently faced a serious health scare. And she’s working to start a new life in Washington, but until she can earn enough to find housing, the family’s only option is the family shelter.
Crawford said she thinks her daughter has tried standing up to bullying at school and that’s the root of some of the behavior issues.
“It’s one thing to come from like a homeless shelter and go to school,” Crawford said, “but to be treated by where you stay and some of the things that you wear — it’s not right.”
The experience of homelessness is a marker that a student might have many behavioral trigger points, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national advocacy organization for homeless students.
“It’s this marker of extreme vulnerability, where you have multiple system failures, multiple traumas, traumas coming together, that then become exacerbated, you know, once the student is actually homeless,” Duffield said.
That trauma doesn’t have to lead to disproportionate school discipline, Duffield said.
SchoolHouse Connection, and other policy organizations, such as Building Changes, have recommended measures for closing the discipline gap both nationally and locally. These include incorporating school staff who support homeless students early in the disciplinary process, more trauma and homelessness training, and consideration of a child’s housing status before removal from school, among other measures.
The Seattle Times contacted several school districts with high discipline rates for homeless students, including the state’s largest, Seattle Public Schools, and they declined to participate in this story.
But some said they’ve created more support for homeless students since the most recent discipline data came out.
Kent School District said last year it started providing case management for homeless students with behavioral or academic needs. Vancouver School District said it’s developed an equity plan to address the disproportionality in discipline.
Narváez Zavala of Building Changes said that as educators understand more about how students learn differently and as they create a variety of methods for teaching, they need to address discipline the same way.
“It’s not just the cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach,” Narváez Zavala said.
He said that when discipline is applied in the same way, across a broad range of students, homeless students experience it more harshly — unlike their housed peers, they are being removed from possibly one of the only places that provides a sense of stability and safety.
So some solutions might not focus on the disruptive behaviors at all. Tacoma School District officials said they recently hired a housing navigator to help students and families.
But since the state is two years behind in releasing discipline data, it will take years to understand if these measures are making a difference.
Erb-Downward, who has studied the connection between homelessness and discipline, said there are plenty of things that the federal government, states and local districts can do around discipline to make improvements, beginning with understanding the scope of the problem.
But these behavioral issues showing up in the classroom, Erb-Downward said, go beyond just educators and school administrators.
“If housing instability, poverty and trauma are some of the drivers behind behaviors that are coming into the classroom,” Erb-Downward said, “wouldn’t it make more sense to try to make policies that ensure that children have access to a safe, stable place to live and grow up? That they have access to food?”
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