Discipline Over Punishment [#RFBookClub BOOK REVIEW]

Book Review Writer: Renee Farrell

Blog Editor: Mark Barry


Gardner, T. W. (2016). Discipline over punishment: successes and struggles with restorative justice in schools. Lanham, Maryland: Rowan & Littlefield.

Gardner (2016) writes from a perspective of almost 20 years of urban high school classroom teaching experience in the US. Gardner’s context involves the Safe Schools policy and zero tolerance and how this policy, though it is concerned with the prevention of violence, actually may perpetuate harm in schools by replicating systematic discrimination and injustice in society. These injustices have recently inspired movements such as #blacklivesmatter and Occupy. This scholarly text is intended to inform educators, policy makers and school stakeholders about alternative discipline strategies rooted in restorative justice thinking and how they apply to broader terms of classroom engagement. It is written as a values-driven teacher narrative and is largely concerned with the student-teacher relationship. Gardner defines restorative justice (RJ) in philosophy and practice and then begins to apply RJ to broader ideas concerning teaching practice such as classroom management (including relationship-building), leadership, and early intervention. Gardner’s final two chapters relate challenges and applications for teachers for RJ, both with their students and their peer teachers and administration.

The subject of Discipline Over Punishment is the need for public school transformation and how the application of restorative justice in Gardner’s own teaching experience has informed a relationships-based practice and philosophy, particularly in the context of school-based discipline policy. The foreword identifies a need for discipline policy to align with the greater school mandate of education, i.e. providing opportunities for learning. “Schools should not simply provide students with the skills necessary to be gainfully employed and positive contributing members of a society; they must also teach them how to engage meaningfully with the society in which they live. Restorative justice models that demonstrate ways to effectively resolve conflict can be powerful tools of civic learning. Such processes can help rebuild trust or faith in institutions for those on the margins or prevent students from feelings of isolation in the first place” (Preface, xii.) Gardner builds on the work of previous research in restorative justice, including Helen Fein’s “a universe of obligation” as applied to schools as a “circle of persons toward whom obligations are owed, to whom rules apply and whose injuries call for [amends] by the community” (p.5); and “preventative justice” as “the need to meet students where they are and to listen, look, and understand what is going on with them in moments of conflict” (p. 26.)

Restorative justice is defined in the text as a more “rigorous” process (p. 28) of discipline in which “we are compelled to find ways to meet [students’] needs and work beyond the traditional structures of a school system that expects all students to show up ready and prepared to learn in the same way” (p. 36.) Each chapter presents case studies in which a student-teacher scenario is explored through the school and greater community context where restorative justice and alternate discipline models are used through a relationship-building approach. The chapters progress from student-teacher relationship building, to student engagement and finally, student leadership. Chapter 5 describes the “transformative” process of the student justice panel where student leaders hold their peers accountable for their actions through “authority to affect and even change school discipline decisions and policies” and includes appendices A-C for implementation (p. 54.)

The text focuses largely on secondary school experiences and only in chapter 7 is elementary school mentioned, alongside examples of restorative circles and their applications. The text presents as a practical educator handbook, however, though Gardner admits that “the most difficult work is changing the hearts and minds of the educators at one’s school”, he only addresses this problem in the final chapter where he presents two case studies involving teacher communities and administration. He addresses misconceptions about RJ being a “soft” approach (p. 100) and that it does not set “low expectations for student behavior” (p. 10) Finally, Gardner recommends that teachers need to consider “context” and be given appropriate support so that they can move past any mistrust of the RJ process due to systemic contradictions in the school, as well as consider that funding and consistency are needed in order to appropriately implement restorative justice.

I would recommend Discipline Over Punishment to educators looking for information about how to explore alternative discipline strategies or relationship-building techniques; however, I would be hesitant to recommend this book as a guide to implementing restorative justice in schools as it is not comprehensive and is concerned largely with student engagement and equity as opposed to a school-wide informed practice

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