Ypsi nonprofit uses U-M research to help Michigan school districts prevent expulsions

Ypsilanti-based nonprofit Student Advocacy Center (SAC) recently collaborated with Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan to help school districts refine their policies around expulsions and suspensions for students who have experienced homelessness.

SAC focuses on student success and advocacy, helping K-12 students when they are suspended, expelled, or otherwise face barriers to getting an education. SAC Executive Director Peri Stone-Palmquist says she and her colleagues had long noted that there seemed to be a connection between trauma and/or homelessness and high rates of suspension and expulsion. 

That is just what the Poverty Solutions study found. Key takeaways included the fact that of the state's 537 non-charter public schools, 50 districts accounted for 33% of all student suspensions and expulsions, despite serving only 13% of students in the state. Additionally, discipline policies disproportionately impact students who have experienced trauma and homelessness. In 48 school districts, more than 25% of students who had experienced homelessness had been suspended or expelled.

A new interactive data map lets viewers see which districts have the highest rate of expulsions and suspensions for students who have experienced homelessness, and a comparison to statistics for all students in that district.

Before releasing the map and data to the public, Poverty Solutions researchers convened a group of stakeholders, including representatives from SAC, to develop recommendations based on the research results.

"We'll be focusing our efforts on the top 50 worst districts, but the recommendations are good for pretty much any school district," Stone-Palmquist says. "We're working on training for folks who want to do advocacy at their school district and helping them implement best practices around homelessness and school discipline."

Ypsilanti Community Schools (YCS) is not among the worst districts. Stone-Palmquist says YCS has a "strong commitment to reducing expulsions and long-term suspensions," but she is happy to help the district review its code of conduct to make sure it contains best practices as well.

SAC's recommendations for school districts include restrictions on who can be expelled and making sure codes of conduct reflect the latest legislation around school discipline. Currently, schools use a seven-factor review before expelling a student. SAC is suggesting that schools add an eighth factor that considers whether the student being disciplined has ever been homeless. A ninth factor would look at whether a student had adverse childhood experiences, such as experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect. 

Neither the eighth or ninth factor is required by law, but Stone-Palmquist says districts could and should include them voluntarily. She says districts should also have a robust plan for interventions short of expulsion. She also says school discipline committees should include the district's homeless liaison, teachers, and a youth representative.

"When you're doing trauma-informed work, it's like wearing a different pair of glasses when you're looking at incidents," Stone-Palmquist says. "You should be thinking about triggers and how to make students feel safe. You shouldn't ask 'Why did you do this?' but 'What's going on with you and how can we support you?'"

The interactive map, a list of the 10 districts with the highest exclusionary discipline rates, and other findings of the study are available here. More information about SAC's work with homeless students is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

Map courtesy of Poverty Solutions.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.