Positive School Discipline Practices for Students Experiencing Homelessness
What are the impacts of an out-of-school suspension for students without a home? Where do they spend their day? What do they eat? Who cares for them? This brief provides a brief overview of school discipline, shares research on the discipline of students experiencing homelessness, and offers tips for implementing positive school discipline for students experiencing homelessness. It also shares experiences and suggestions from youth who have experienced homelessness and are now SchoolHouse Connection Young Leaders.
School Discipline Generally
Traditional, punitive discipline practices include detention, suspension, and expulsion. These approaches are based on the assumption that punishment will compel students to change their behavior. In practice, they contribute to the “school-to-prison pipeline” and further isolate children who often are in dire need of positive relationships and support. They also have civil rights implications, as students of color are disproportionately subjected to punitive discipline, particularly African American and Native American students.
In contrast, positive school discipline adopts a trauma-informed approach to strengthening the capacity of both school staff and students to reduce and prevent inappropriate and disruptive behavior. It recognizes that seeking to uncover and address the root causes of a student’s behavior is more effective than punishment. Positive school discipline is integrated into school policies, programs, and practices and applied systemwide. It often includes restorative justice practices that focus on repairing harm through inclusive processes that engage all stakeholders.
School Discipline of Students Experiencing Homelessness
Multiple studies have found that students experiencing homelessness are subjected to punitive discipline measures much more often than their housed peers.
- Students experiencing homelessness in Texas are twice as likely to be referred to in-school suspension, 2.5 times more likely to be suspended from school, and five times more likely to be referred to a Disciplinary Alternative Education Program.
- In Indiana, students experiencing homelessness receive both in-school and out-of-school suspensions at twice the rate of housed students.
These disproportionalities are worse for students experiencing homelessness than for other poor students.
- In Florida, 16% of students experiencing homelessness were suspended at least once in the 2015-16 school year, compared to 11% of housed students receiving free or reduced lunch, and 6% of housed students not receiving free or reduced lunch.
- Students experiencing homelessness in Washington were suspended at twice the rate of housed students and at higher rates than housed, low-income students. This disproportionality held true for students in all homeless residence categories, including those sharing the housing of others due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason.
Tips for Implementing Positive School Discipline for Students Experiencing Homelessness
- Always operate from a trauma-informed perspective.
“For our students, the instability, uncertainty and often violence of ‘home’ can be a brutal punishment.” – Jordann Lankford, Montana’s Indian Teacher of the Year at Intertribal Immersion School
- Make school a safe zone for students. Create a space that is predictable, where students can make mistakes and be held accountable, but feel secure.
- Track the discipline rates at schools for all students and for students experiencing homelessness specifically. Share the data with schools and ask schools with high and/or disproportionate discipline rates to create an action plan to address them.
- Be sure the McKinney-Vento district homeless liaison or school-based liaisons are consulted on discipline of students experiencing homelessness and have the capacity to be involved.
“The key is seeing the liaison’s job as a case management model and shifting your district administration’s focus toward seeing a robust McKinney-Vento program as a solution to a lot of problems—classroom management problems, discipline problems, and graduation rate problems.” – Linda Long, Support/Homeless Services Coordinator at Haysville Schools, KS
- Engage students in establishing the rules and consequences, thereby preventing the discipline system from seeming surprising, imposed, or arbitrary.
- Train and engage school administrators, resource officers, counselors, and teachers in implementing school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports.
“I trained assistant principals and our school district police force. I was able to raise awareness about the trauma and effects of homelessness. Now assistant principals call me when they have discipline issues with students.” – Norma Mercado, Parent Involvement & Homeless Liaison at Bastrop ISD, TX
- Engage the broader community, such as substance abuse services, police, juvenile courts, and juvenile probation.
“I have developed a good relationship with juvenile probation, and now we are working together to help all students stay in school and resolve their issues. For example, I intervened for a 15-year old student who was going to be incarcerated until age 18. I explained the family was homeless, with limited resources and family trauma, and the judge instead sent him to our alternative program. He is on track for graduation now.” – Norma Mercado
- Be aware of potential triggers.
“In some schools, we found that bells triggered a fight or flight response and negative behaviors. Shutting off the bells cut behavioral referrals in half in some schools.” – Jordann Lankford
- If community service is part of a restorative justice approach, be aware that barriers like lack of transportation, shelter hours, or the need to work may make it impossible for students experiencing homelessness to complete community service after school.
I make community service a learning and community-building exercise. For example, if students are in cooking class, we’ll give what they cook to a homeless shelter.” – Jordann Lankford
- National Clearinghouse on Supportive School Discipline – https://supportiveschooldiscipline.org/
- Restorative Practices: A Guide for Educators – http://schottfoundation.org/restorative-practices
- Technical Assistance Center of Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports – https://www.pbis.org/
 Thalia González (2012). Keeping Kids in Schools: Restorative Justice, Punitive Discipline, and the School to Prison Pipeline. 41 J.L. & Educ. 281.
 In 2011–12, 6.4% of public school students received out-of-school suspensions. However, 15.4% of Black students were suspended, along with 7.8% of American Indian/Alaska Native students. Similarly, while only 0.2% of students were expelled in 2011–12, 0.5% of Black students and 0.4% of American Indian/Alaska Native students were expelled. National Center for Education Statistics (2017). Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Groups, Indicator 14: Retention, Suspension, and Expulsion. Retrieved November 3, 2018 from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/raceindicators/indicator_rda.asp
 McMorris, B.J., Beckman, K.J., Shea, G., Baumgartner, J., & Eggert, R.C. (2013). Applying Restorative Practices to Minneapolis Public School Students Recommended for Possible Expulsion: A Pilot Program Evaluation of the Family and Youth Restorative Conference Program. Retrieved November 3, 2018 from http://www.legalrightscenter.org/uploads/2/5/7/3/25735760/lrc_exec_summ-final.pdf
 Texas Appleseed and Texas Network of Youth Services (2017). Young, Alone and Homeless in the Lone Star State. Retrieved November 3, 2018 from https://www.texasappleseed.org/homeless-youth
 In the 2015-16 school year, 6% of students experiencing homelessness received in-school suspensions, compared to 3% of housed students. 20% of students experiencing homelessness received out-of-school suspensions, compared to 20% of housed students. Coalition for Homelessness Intervention & Prevention (2018). Re: Home: Indianapolis Coordinated Community Plan to Re:Solve Homelessness for Youth & Young Adults.
 Shinberg Center for Housing Studies, University of Florida and Miami Homes for All (2017). Homelessness and Education in Florida: Impacts on Children and Youth.
 Schoolhouse Washington (2018). Students Experiencing Homelessness in Washington’s K-12 Public Schools: Trends, Characteristics and Academic Outcomes 2016-17.