Fort Bend Independent School District trustees ended a months-long debate Monday over the district’s approach to student discipline, approving a new code of conduct that emphasizes traditional punishment, such as suspensions, over newer approaches endorsed by Superintendent Christie Whitbeck.

In a 6-1 vote, the trustees supported a code of conduct that stripped some proposed language encouraging the use of “restorative practices,” a discipline method that aims to solve the root of misbehavior by allowing students to talk through conflicts. Whitbeck’s administration added the language in a proposed code of conduct this summer, but dissatisfied trustees argued that the softer approach to discipline wouldn’t change poor student behavior.

“There’s a little bit more of a consequence mindset” under the newly approved code of conduct, Whitbeck said Monday. 

The lengthy debate marked a rare public disagreement between Fort Bend’s board and superintendent on a significant issue in the district.

Fort Bend, the Houston region’s fourth-largest school district, faced a federal investigation into its discipline practices in the mid-2010s. Federal investigators did not find Fort Bend officials discriminated against students following a six-year inquiry, but the review laid bare data showing Black students were suspended at a rate six times higher than white students. The disparities have not changed in recent years, though Fort Bend has dramatically cut its use of suspensions.

Fort Bend trustees typically approve a student code of conduct before the school year begins, but board members also voted 6-1 in late July to reject Whitbeck’s proposed code.

Whitbeck’s administration originally proposed adding a “culture and climate” statement to the code this year outlining the district’s commitment to restorative practices. Advocates favoring the approach say the strategy helps children understand why their actions are inappropriate and keeps kids in school.

The suggested code also included several pages outlining specific restorative practices and “student ownership actions” that teachers could use to address a list of infractions. For example, the proposed code suggested a student could create a presentation on empathy if they were in trouble for ridiculing someone, or maintain a behavior report card if they were caught horseplaying. 

But critics of restorative practices, including several Fort Bend trustees, worry the approach is too soft on students and places a difficult responsibility on teachers to carry out the strategy.

Faced with the rebuke, Whitbeck’s administration removed the “culture and climate” statement and additional pages promoting restorative practices. The administration also changed the consequences to some discipline infractions, making the punishments more “elevated than they were in the past,” Fort Bend Chief of Schools Kwabena Mensah said.

Mensah added that Fort Bend staffers can continue to employ restorative practices, but the administration decided the detailed suggestions of how to do so “didn’t have to be in the student code of conduct.”

Several trustees said Monday they were satisfied to see traditional discipline measures more strictly outlined in the code of conduct. 

Trustee David Hamilton said the district has taken a lighter approach to discipline in recent years, the result of pressure to handle reprimanding students in a “colorblind manner” following the federal investigation. Hamilton argued that discipline disparities reflected economic, rather than racial, issues.

“I think there’s pressure not to treat poverty issues as poverty issues, because some people might identify that inadvertently being racially-driven,” Hamilton said. “I think we can avoid a lot of those issues if we clearly set the expectations.”

Some trustees said they were not completely satisfied with the code of conduct, but they wanted to resolve the debate after months of uncertainty. Hamilton’s comments upset Trustee Shirley Rose-Gilliam, who reluctantly supported the final code of conduct despite concerns about some board members not getting to offer input on the revisions. 

“I’m voting with reservation, but I’m voting for it because … we need to move forward,” Gilliam said.

Trustee Angie Hanan cast the lone vote opposing the code of conduct.

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Miranda Dunlap is a reporter covering K-12 schools across the eight-county Greater Houston region. A painfully Midwestern native to Michigan’s capital region, Miranda studied political science pre-law...