Homeless And Foster Youth Are Suspended At Disproportionate Rates In California Schools

When children are disciplined in schools, a common outcome is being sent home on suspension; a recent study looks into how this affects homeless and foster youth.

By Janell Gore | South Kern Sol

When children are disciplined in schools, a common outcome is being sent home on suspension; a recent study looks into how this affects homeless and foster youth.

The study Lost Instruction Time in California Schools: The Disparte Harm from Post-Pandemic Punitive Suspensions was done by the UCLA Civil Rights Project and the National Center for Youth Law. According to the study, foster youth lost 77 days of instruction per 100 enrolled students, and homeless youth lost 26 days per 100 students due to suspension. 

“School administrators need to ask themselves what educational or community benefit is achieved when we punish homeless and foster children by sending them home,” says Ramon Flores, Ph.D. candidate in education at UCLA and co-author of the report in a press release. “For homeless and foster youth, when they are suspended out of school, the consequences may be grave.”

Digging deeper, the study also broke down racial disparities amongst homeless youth and saw that African-American students faced higher rates of suspensions than White students, who also had a high rate. African-American foster students lost 121 days of instruction per 100 enrolled, and homeless students lost 69 days per 100 students. White foster and homeless students lost 79 and 36 days per 100 students.

According to the study, Kern High School District (KHSD) had high rates of loss of instruction in the 2021-2022 school and had an increase from the 2018- 2019 school year for the following groups. 

  • African-American students (79.7, up 12.0)
  • American Indians/ Alaskan Natives (55.1, up 42.4)
  • Pacific Islanders (19.7, up 4.0)

Since Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is the largest district in California and has the lowest rates for loss of instruction, the study used them as a comparison. Compared to LAUSD, KHSD was the “worst,” with their rates for African-American students being 40 times higher than the rate for all students in LAUSD. 

Co-author Dan Losen stated that 20 is their threshold for considering the amount of loss of instruction days high. KHSD is about four times the threshold for African-American students. 

Losen is a researcher and a lawyer and stated he has been focused on the school-to-prison pipeline for the past 23 years. The American Civil Liberties Union describes the school-to-prison pipeline as when students are funneled from the education system to the prison system. This national trend directly results from students being suspended and expelled from school. It disproportionately impacts students of color, with disabilities, and, in the case of this study, foster and homeless youth. 

“This is absurd and outrageous. I didn’t realize that foster youth, for example, would have been the group that had the highest suspension rates and that homeless youth would be a close second. Obviously, the school district could be doing more to support those students who experience adverse childhood experiences,” said Losen.

He continued to say that it shows the need to work with students and provide teachers with resources to help students. When it comes to teachers being equipped to handle students with behavioral issues, Losen spoke about his experience as a public school teacher for 10 years. 

“I wasn’t well equipped my first year, but I did receive support and training from my principal and directly from the school district that had a training program for teachers in place that dramatically helped me move from one those teachers that just was constantly sending kids to the principal’s office to almost never doing that,” said Losen. “That was not without some work on my part as well the fact that I was in a district that did provide adequate support and had training available.”

Losen explained that many of the suspensions are still for minor offenses and that there is no educationally sound reason for sending them home. One example he gave for this is profanity and vulgar language or paraphernalia like smokeless tobacco. 

“Sure, you can confiscate the paraphernalia, but why remove the student from educational opportunity?” asked Losen. 

He continued to say that in his research with districts throughout the United States, most of the suspensions were for out-of-classroom behavior. 

“There’s no reason to think sending a student to be homeless either out on the streets or in a group home for two days because they used profanity in the hallway; that makes no sense. There’s no educationally sound justification. What it does is it puts them at greater risk of gang involvement or crime in the community. It does nothing but deprive them of educational opportunities,” said Losen. 

For Losen, the best thing that helped him with the change in how he handled disrespect for students was to not take anything they said or did personally. He also worked more to call attention to when the students were doing things right. 

“I would call parents when maybe a student that had been difficult to handle did something really good in the classroom or did something really kind to a peer. Anything that was legitimately worth noting, I would call their parents,” said Losen. “Oftentimes, that was the first time that parent had ever gotten a positive call from school about their child.”

He stated that this sent a message to the students that he was looking out for them in a positive way and established a more trusting relationship. 

Anthony Fuentes, a KHSD teacher and Bakersfield City School District board member, stated that suspensions get a kid out of school, but they don’t address the actual issue.

“Suspensions are sort of by nature not restorative. Not the best way to fix the problems we have,” said Fuentes. 

As a board member, he sees both sides and said he advocates for kids going through a restorative process so they are in school and the behaviors are not repeated. He stated that it is better for the student who got in trouble, the student impacted by what happened, and the teacher if there is actual progress in the classroom. 

Fuentes agreed with a point from Losen that each day a student is suspended should be justified. However, the reasoning is often that they don’t have the resources for another option. 

“Unfortunately, I think a lot of times, however, the reasoning is that we don’t have the systems in place to do authentic restorative practices in an efficient and real way,” said Fuentes. 

As a teacher, Fuentes stated when a student’s behavior has seriously impacted the classroom, he doesn’t want them back in the classroom until the student and the class are ready.

“I don’t think we have the systems in place to make it so when that kid is back in the classroom, they are accepted and accepting of how to restore what was harmed,” said Fuentes. “So, as opposed as I am to suspensions that are simply punitive, I am not sure that our alternatives are really up to the standards that I would want them to be.”

Fuentes explained that a restorative practice could be having staff on campus that is solely focused on working on interventions. 

When discussing homeless and foster students specifically, Fuentes stated that a lot of their issues come from their home life, and along with having better systems in place to handle restoration, there could be more empathy from teachers. 

“I think we have to realize that a lot of these kids are living lives that a lot of us don’t know what that’s like,” said Fuentes. 

He continued to say that he really wants to keep students in school as a board member and as a teacher, which would take more authentic restoration processes.