Fort Bend Independent School District’s superintendent and elected trustees are locked in a debate about how to address poor student behavior, the latest clash over discipline in a district with a history of disproportionately punishing Black and Hispanic students.
For months, Fort Bend trustees have failed to pass an updated student code of conduct due to a lengthy debate over whether the district should reduce its use of traditional discipline practices, such as suspensions.
In July, trustees voted 6-1 to reject a code of conduct from Superintendent Christie Whitbeck’s administration that emphasized the district’s commitment to “restorative practices,” an approach that involves students talking through their conflicts with each other and jointly reaching a resolution.
Advocates for restorative practices say the strategy helps build relationships on campuses and better addresses the root causes of student misbehavior.
“We want our students to be independent thinkers and make better decisions,” Fort Bend Chief of Schools Kwabena Mensah said. “We know that if we just apply a consequence, that may not necessarily teach the student how to do something differently, how to act in that situation.”
Several Fort Bend trustees, however, argued the approach is too soft on students and dumps extra work on already-stressed teachers.
“Fort Bend ISD is not a day care,” Trustee Rick Garcia said at a late July board meeting. “We’re educating children. We’re educating the future of this county. Are we paying teachers to teach, or are we turning teachers into part-time nurses?”
Trustees are expected to vote again on the code of conduct at a public meeting Monday, Board President Judy Dae said. Mensah said he could not confirm what emphasis the proposed code of conduct will place on restorative practices because the document is still being revised.
District officials did not make Whitbeck available for an interview. Dae declined to discuss the topic until after trustees vote on a revised policy.
The restorative practices debate is the latest flare-up over student discipline in Fort Bend, an economically and racially diverse district that educates roughly 76,500 students.
In the mid-2010s, the U.S. Department of Education spent six years investigating allegations that Fort Bend staff disciplined Black students more frequently or harshly than their peers. The probe, which ended when the district entered into a resolution agreement, did not find the district responsible for discrimination. But investigators cited several reasons why Black students were suspended at a rate six times higher than white students in the district.
The current disagreement also arrives at a moment of heightened attention on education practices more often embraced by progressives, such as restorative discipline. Many conservatives and some moderates have pushed back against those policies in the past few years, spurred in part by renewed interest in local education policy following the pandemic.
Talk or action?
Restorative practices aren’t new to Fort Bend.
For at least a decade, the district’s code of conduct has given teachers the option to use the approach, which typically involves one-on-one conversations and small-group discussions led by a school employee. Restorative practices supporters say the method helps students understand the impact and root cause of their actions, allowing them to positively change their behavior. The approach is often used in place of excluding students from the classroom via suspension or placement in an off-campus discipline program.
This summer, an annual update to Fort Bend’s code of conduct authored by Whitbeck’s administration included new language that, according to some trustees, stressed the importance of the approach much more.
The addition led Fort Bend’s relatively new trustees — all seven members have less than three years experience on the board — to question whether the district should use such measures at all.
Several trustees were concerned that restorative practices teach children that their actions don’t yield strict consequences, ultimately exacerbating behavioral issues. Trustee David Hamilton said principals have told him they’ve felt pressured to consistently employ these measures despite knowing they weren’t changing students’ behavior.
“I feel like we’re putting teachers and administrators in positions where they believe that there’s a clear right thing to do in a certain situation … and they're being somewhat pressured to do something different based on some of the fallout of things that have happened over the past decade in our district,” Hamilton said.
Garcia said he’s had reservations about restorative disciplines for a while, but the new code brought the approach “front-and-center.” Garcia, like other trustees, was concerned that the practice places an unfair burden on teachers who must spend more time deeply addressing student misbehavior instead of administering easier, more effective traditional discipline measures.
“When I look at restorative discipline and restorative chats, it is an alternative to a consequence that probably should happen,” Garcia said.
But proponents say those critiques are misconceptions. If campuses fully commit to restorative practices, the results speak for themselves, they say.
Paige Duggins-Clay, chief legal analyst at the Intercultural Development Research Association, which advocates for equity in Texas public education, said punishing and suspending children “dehumanizes and devalues individual students.”
“When you think about the radical act of acknowledging that even if they make a mistake, that we can talk about it, that you're still worthy of being in our community, and that we can together come up with a solution to address the behavior and keep you in our community — just that act of creating that place and inviting that conversation is really, really powerful,” Duggins-Clay said.
An ongoing conversation
For Fort Bend residents, tensions remain from the federal investigation, hovering over the current discipline debate.
While the district touted that investigators found no evidence of discrimination, some community members felt the district was skirting responsibility by entering a resolution agreement before wrongdoing could be found. A vague code of conduct, inconsistent tracking of disciplinary offenses and disparities in the discipline of Black students were still cited as areas of concern in the agreement.
“Oh my gosh, it was real back then. We were a divided community,” said Vanesia Johnson, who created the group Citizens Advocating for Social Equity to champion for marginalized populations in the district and served on several committees that allow community members to shape school policies.
“No one on that board was around when it all went down. We have a brand new superintendent. … But under this current political climate, I want to make sure that the ills of our past remain in the past.”
Fort Bend has dramatically reduced its use of suspensions in the decade since federal officials opened their investigation. The district’s in- and out-of-school suspension rates fell nearly 75 percent between 2011-12 and 2021-22, according to data submitted to the state.
But while total discipline has declined, stark racial disparities haven’t changed. For example, the district still suspended Black students at a rate six times higher than white students in 2021-22, the most recent year with available data. That figure is virtually unchanged from a decade ago.
For Leonetti Elementary School teacher Delyla Ovalle-Bowyer, a commitment to restorative practices would mean her students could spend more time in the classroom learning.
The special education teacher hasn’t seen the approach in action, but after receiving training on the practice, Ovalle-Bowyer said bringing students together to talk through issues is a learning experience for everybody involved — including educators. Ovalle-Bowyer said any additional time spent by teachers on restorative practices is worth the results.
“Incorporating restorative justice practices would have improved our student behavior and the campus climate,” Ovalle-Bowyer said. “We see these statistics, (Black, Indigenous and people of color) individuals having more punishment. … These are practices that would build a community for us.”
Cheryl Buford, who lost her run for a Fort Bend trustee position in May, said she sees how the restorative practices approach might appeal to those eager to solve racial disparities in discipline. But during her time campaigning, she repeatedly heard that the approach wasn’t properly addressing student misbehavior in some schools, which was causing “chaos.”
“It seems to indicate that everything is under control if you're not getting referrals to the office,” Buford said. “Any caring person wants an environment that, on the face of it, would be trauma-informed and culturally responsive. Those terms just evoke all of the empathy of a caring person, you can imagine. Nobody goes into school and wants it to be bootcamp. Behind those very emotion-laden terms are policies that are not helpful to students.”
For Johnson, the stir has left her worried that Fort Bend’s recent progress on discipline could stall under the new board.
“Don't forget where we've been,” Johnson said. “The district is on to new leadership. Those past transgressions are distant in the night. The legacy of that is not quite remembered. … So I've been trying to make sure that they know the story, because I don't want to repeat it.”