Why Addressing the Suspension of Homeless Students in Middle School Matters

A web supplement to Suspension Hubs: The Rise in Suspensions Among Homeless Students.

For homeless students, middle school is a formative time—and what they experience in school can make or break their future opportunities.

Middle school is a critical period for all students. As students enter adolescence they start to develop and express their identity, their self-esteem, and their sense of their place in the world. It is also a time when adolescents begin to rebel, encounter peer pressure, and test boundaries.

School disciplinary practices can often have a significant effect on whether students feel safe and included or detached and excluded from their peers, teachers, and learning community. For students whose families struggle with housing instability and homelessness, coping with the challenges of early adolescence in tandem with the loss of their home are further compounded when school disciplinary practices isolate them even further.

ICPH chose to explore the impact of school discipline—and suspension practices in particular—in light of research that shows that students who are suspended once are more likely to be suspended again in the future. We found a shocking trend which we explored in our April 2018 report Suspension Hubs: The Rise of Suspensions Among Homeless Students. This report identified 102 middle schools—dubbed suspension hubs—at which 1 in 7 homeless students are suspended. That’s three times the rate of non-homeless students. While this extreme situation merits special attention, the situation for homeless middle school students overall deserves similar attention.


The Big Picture

Homeless students are suspended at every grade level. In elementary school, relatively few homeless students received a suspension. By the time students enter middle school, as illustrated in the chart below, their risk of suspension doubles: from 2.5% in 5th grade to 5.3% in 6th grade. By 8th grade, the suspension rate for homeless students rose to nearly 8%. Homeless 9th graders were at the highest risk of being suspended—9%, or one in every 11 students, received a suspension that year. The first year of high school is a critical turning point, and when students are suspended they are more likely to disengage from school and less likely to receive their diploma.

Source: New York City Department of Education, unpublished data tabulated by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, SY 2015–16.


Which Homeless Students Are Most at Risk?

A deeper dive into suspension rates of middle schoolers shows that homeless students who are black, male, or living in the shelter system were most at risk of getting suspended from school.

Racial Disparities in Middle School Suspensions

Several studies have addressed the issue of racial disparities in school suspensions. For various reasons, including implicit biases that influence how teachers and administrators respond to student behavior, students of color are the recipients of harsher school discipline. In New York City, black middle school students experiencing homelessness were suspended at nearly four times the rate (10.3%) of homeless students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds (2.5%), including white, Asian, Native American, and multi-racial students combined.

Note: “Other” includes white, Asian, Native American, and multi-racial students combined. Source: New York City Department of Education, unpublished data tabulated by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, SY 2015–16.

Homeless Male Students See Higher Risk

One in 10 (9.8%) homeless male students in 8th grade were suspended compared to 6.0% of their grade-level peers who were housed. Female students were suspended at lower rates than their male classmates, but the same trend continued—those experiencing homelessness were suspended at much higher rates. In fact, female students who were homeless saw twice the suspension rate as their housed peers throughout their middle school years.

Source: New York City Department of Education, unpublished data tabulated by the Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness, SY 2015–16.

More Suspensions Among Homeless Students Living in Shelters

During SY 2015–16, middle school students residing in shelters and other temporary housing faced higher risks of being suspended (10.2% and 10.1%) than their doubled up and housed peers (4.5% or less).

What Happens to Students Who Are No Longer Homeless?

Unfortunately, moving into permanent housing does not reduce students’ risk of being suspended. In fact, the lingering aftershocks of trauma that ricochet through students’ lives may make it even harder for them to cope in school. Students who were housed in SY 2015–16 with a history of homelessness were suspended at alarming rates (7.5%).

Key Considerations

How can policies and practices that disproportionately and negatively impact students of color, especially those who are homeless, be revised to ensure all students receive a sound, basic education? What restorative justice practices can be incorporated that meet the behavioral needs of all students, especially those who have experienced trauma? How does the City’s family shelter system work with schools to ensure that the emotional and educational needs of their young residents are being met? How are the ongoing emotional and behavioral needs of students with even one past episode of homelessness being addressed?