Researcher suggests schools need to consider a child's housing situation before punishment

Posted at 9:34 PM, Jun 03, 2021

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Are schools punishing kids acting out because of trauma? Is the punishment hurting them more?

Those are the questions researchers with Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan are asking. They say a connection between housing insecurity and school discipline records provides evidence we may not always be doing the best for children.

In Michigan, approximately one in ten students experience housing insecurity or homelessness by the time they leave high school.

Harley James is just one of many who dealt with housing insecurity growing up. He says in middle school he found himself repeatedly the new kid. That at times meant he had to deal with bullies without having friends to back him up.

“We were moving around and I would find myself in a new school where I would feel I had to prove myself by fighting and getting in trouble,” said Harley James.

“We see an educational impact when we are talking about children in these unstable living situations,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward.

Erb-Downward, Senior Research Associate with Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, testified recently before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education.

She shared her research on the connections between housing instability and school discipline.

Students with financial and housing instability are four times more likely to face such discipline than students with stability.

Erb-Downward says research has linked both suspensions and expulsions to negative outcomes for children. Such punishments have been connected to lower rates of proficiency on state tests and an increased rate of dropping out of school. She says making sure that students are supported through housing instability could be a better way than punishment to respond to behavioral issues in many instances.

“Particularly when you are talking about students who are homeless. They don’t have a stable place to live. School is one of the stable places in their life. Taking that away is unjust,” said Erb-Downward.

You can read more about her research here.

Harley graduated from Denby High School and now is at Michigan State University. He says school punishments didn’t set him up for success. He gives credit to his perseverance and the Caught Up Mentoring program.

“All he needed was somebody to give him guidance and direction. Somebody to take him under their wing. And once you do that you see they have the skills of their own. Harley is the perfect example of that,” said Toson Knight, President & Founder of Caught Up Mentoring.

“The consistency of seeing black men who had made it in their life, that showed me I can do it too,” said Harley.