At first, a press release from Fort Bend ISD announcing the end of a six-year investigation of racial disparities in the district’s student discipline seemed to be cause for celebration.
Certainly, district officials initially painted it as such: “The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights completes investigation” said one headline, “without findings of wrongdoing.”
In the first paragraph, the July 26 release notes that the OCR “did not make any finding that the District discriminated against any students.”
No wrongdoing. No discrimination. No lack of compliance.
Great news, right?
If only it were true.
In fact, that is not what the federal agency tasked with ensuring equal access to education concluded.
The district and the Department of Education did sign a voluntary resolution agreement resolving the investigation, which does not “constitute an admission of liability, non-compliance or wrongdoing” by Fort Bend ISD.
But in sharp contrast with the district’s statement, the OCR found plenty of evidence that Fort Bend administrators are disproportionately disciplining black students.
According to a July 31 letter from the OCR to superintendent Charles Dupre, black students were six times more likely to get out-of-school suspension than their white peers and four times as likely to get in-school suspension.
Time and time again, investigators found, black students received more serious penalties for first-time offenses of the same infraction. In most cases, the same administrator would dole out severe discipline to a black student, while sending a white student who committed the same offense off with nothing more than a warning.
At Dulles High School, for example, one administrator gave detention — the harshest penalty — to 7 out of 21 black students for a first-time incident of insubordination, but did not give detention to any of the eight white students charged with the same. At Elkins High School, all of the in-school-suspensions one administrator issued for dress code violations went to black students. Of the 29 black students referred to that same administrator, six had to do in-school-suspension, while none of the nine white students received that penalty.
The unfair patterns did not end in 2012, the year the investigation began. Data through the 2015-2016 school year shows that “African-American students continue to be subjected to exclusionary discipline at a greater rate than their white peers.”
Translation:: Fort Bend ISD is failing its black students.
First and foremost, by allowing the implicit biases of administrators to play a role in discipline and by setting up a system where black students are disciplined more frequently and more harshly than white students.
The district failed its students and their families again — by trying to sweep the federalfindings of discrimination under the rug.
Instead of premature celebration, district officials should have used the agreement with the Department of Education to admit that much work still needs to be done. Indeed, the voluntary resolution outlines corrective measures Fort Bend must take to be in compliance.
Fort Bend ISD deserves to be commended for some steps it has taken, including the use of restorative discipline practices at the middle school level and creating a Department of Student Affairs to examine disciplinary disparities. The district also issued an updated statement on Aug. 10, noting that it has never disputed that “African American students have historically been disciplined at higher rates than their peers in Fort Bend ISD” and notes that such disparities plague most urban districts.
No doubt. But Fort Bend has had six years to fix its discipline gap, and the numbers show little progress.
According to TEA data from the 2016-2017 year, black students, who make up just 28 percent of the district population, made up 64 percent of all Fort Bend ISD students who received out-of-school suspensions — a higher proportion than before the investigation.
District officials can’t fix those problems by pretending they no longer exist. They need to rebuild relationships with students and parents by coming clean about harmful, persistent flaws in Fort Bend’s discipline methods — and getting serious about solutions.
If school leaders can’t be trusted to tell the truth, what kind of example are they setting for children?