Although the number of homeless schoolchildren declined last year in Indiana for the first time in a decade, it remains a reality that affects students in every Allen County school district.
Homelessness is among the topics included in the 2017 Kids Count in Indiana Data Book, an annual profile on child well-being released today that includes data from national and statewide sources in five areas: family, economy, education, health and safety.
It is produced by the Indiana Youth Institute as part of a national network of state-level projects coordinated and supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The national Kids Count Data Book will be released later this year.
According to the publication, the number of public school students identified as homeless or housing unstable dropped from 17,437 to 16,143 – a difference of nearly 1,300 – from school years 2015 and 2016.
This was the first decrease since 2006, when the population was 4,789.
Homelessness comes in multiple forms, including people living in shelters or motels and families doubling up for financial reasons.
The number of homeless students in Allen County varies by district.
In the 2015-16 academic year, Southwest Allen County Schools had three; Northwest Allen County Schools had 152, an increase of seven over the previous year; and Fort Wayne Community Schools served 791 students through its homeless assistance program.
East Allen County Schools did not provide the number of its homeless population, but student services director Michelle Wenglikowski said it may appear that group is growing because EACS has gotten better at identifying such children.
The Kids Count report acknowledges that estimating the number of homeless children is difficult because it’s not always obvious, and many youth try to hide it.
Homeless children are more likely to face such negative outcomes as chronic health problems, difficulty accessing health care and witnessing violence, the report states.
At school, it continued, they are more than twice as likely to repeat a grade, be expelled or suspended or drop out of high school.
FWCS spokeswoman Krista Stockman said school often is the most stable element in homeless students’ lives.
"We want to do whatever we can to make life as normal as possible for students experiencing it," she said.
Bullying also is addressed in the Kids Count report, which states Indiana ranks 12th out of 35 states in the percentage of students bullied on school property.
Physical violence, verbal taunts and social exclusion are forms of bullying, which is defined as "a pattern of aggressive behavior that is repeated over time and involves an imbalance of power or strength," the report states.
According to the report, 18.7 percent of Indiana high school students – including nearly 15 percent of boys and 22.5 percent of girls – reported they were bullied on school property.
These percentages are slightly below the national averages – 20.2 percent, 15.8 percent and 24.8 percent, respectively.
Indiana’s rate of cyber bullying among high school students – 15.7 percent – is on par with the national average, 15.5 percent, according to Kids Count.
Anita Gross, SACS school social worker, said bullying is difficult to quantify.
"But it definitely is an issue," she said.
Parents have a key role in supporting children who feel victimized and in teaching them to have the same respect for individuals face-to-face and online, Gross said.
She and other school officials described programs their districts have to teach children about bullying and respectful behavior.
EACS, for example, uses Character Counts at the elementary schools, safety manager Jeff Studebaker said.
"We really do what we can to prevent it and make sure kids understand the importance of treating others with respect," Stockman said.