Circle in the Square

Building Community and Repairing Harm in School

By Nancy Riestenberg

Living Justice PressSoftcover, 278 pages, indexed, ISBN 978-0-9721886-7-8, publication 2012



In this, her first book, Nancy Riestenberg writes warmly and with long experience about the challenges facing school communities and how restorative measures­—specifically Circles­—create a safer space for learning and development for all.  Using stories direct “from the hallways,” she brings heart to subjects that are often divisive and controversial: bullying and other violence, suspension, drug use, staff conflicts, and more. Throughout the book, Nancy’s focus is on strategies that actually work for the whole school community: students, parents, administrators, teachers, and the community in which they live.

 Reviews and Comments

“Restorative practices are ‘what’s happening’ in schools today. This book, by one of the leaders in the field, draws from reall-life experience as well as the available literature. It is comprehensive but practical and readable; it includes the why, the what, and the how. Every teacher, every administrator – indeed many parents – ought to have this book.”

-—Howard Zehr, author of Changing Lenses and The Little Book of Restorative Justice

“Nancy Riestenberg, since I have known her, has been one of the most articulate advocates of restorative justice in a variety of contexts. Her work in schools, however, is unsurpassed in providing educators with a wealth of knowledge about why and how zero tolerance policies are counterproductive. Most importantly, she is unsurpassed in giving school professionals new tools and showing them how to use them. It is this hands-on work—not more rules or even decent policy—that shows the promise in at least slowing down the school-to-jail pipeline. As a researcher/academic who simply tries to keep up with applications and evaluations of restorative justice, I believe that Nancy also offers practitioners a ‘new theory’ of discipline and learning that they can clearly understand and apply in their efforts to create peaceful schools where children and youth can truly learn.”

Gordon Bazemore, Chair of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and Director of the Community Justice Institute at Florida Atlantic University

“For over a decade now, Nancy Reistenberg continues to be an innovative visionary of harm reduction, violence prevention, and youth development through restorative measures in schools. Circle in the Square offers an insightful and practical guide to the development of restorative measures in schools in Minnesota.

“I can hear Nancy’s calm and reassuring voice in every page, in every story. True to the values and practice of restorative justice, Nancy also includes the voices and stories of her many colleagues in Minnesota, and beyond. In doing so, Circle in the Square offers Minnesota’s rich and diverse experience with restorative measures to be told. It has truly been a story of collaboration and capacity building.

“Of particular significance, Minnesota’s collaborative journey illustrates how the use of Circles, as a restorative measure, has shifted from a disciplinary response to a pedagogical foundation. This book offers a rich treasure of stories, insights and guidelines for practice, written with wit, wisdom and integrity. Circle in the Square will touch the lives of many people and will guide us in restoring safe, healthy, and wise education systems for all

Brenda Morrison, author of Restoring Safe School Communities

“Even the most cynical critics of restorative approaches in schools could not help but be moved by this book. Nancy has written a powerful and compelling combination of research, evaluation, methodology, and stories that argues for the use of Circle and other restorative processes. The stories are heartwarming and moving and demonstrate a belief that young people are capable of making good and wise choices, of contributing in genuinely useful ways, and of being kind, compassionate human beings when they are given the right processes and opportunities to deal with the issues that arise when we live in community. Reading this was like being in the room with Nancy telling these stories. I hope this becomes compulsory reading for all educators.”

Marg Thorsborne, Restorative practitioner and trainer, Australia

“Restorative justice has surely expanded beyond its original roots in criminal justice. This is undoubtedly good, but it does beg the concern that it may be more attractive to pursue restorative justice in other domains because it is “easier” or “more attractive” to work in non-criminal justice settings, which can be challenging. Of course, other settings have significant challenges of their own, and one is still left with the concern that it is, in fact, necessary to confront the challenges that criminal justice present.

“If one is to leave criminal justice, for comparative lessons, inspiration, or relief, Circle in the Square is a terrific destination. Nancy Reistenberg has been integrating restorative justice processes into school districts in Minnesota, her home base, and other states for well more than a decade, and has become the leading national advocate for such interventions. Circle in the Square is a beautifully published, clearly written, and inspiringly instructive guide for reducing harm and building community, even within the context of violent behavior.

“Schools commonly expel students for certain disciplinary infractions, so pulling students together, as is done in Circles, is a revolutionary act. At the core of this volume, Reistenberg offers an array of information on typical disciplinary problems, the need for restorative justice, the basic elements of school-based Circles, components of the Circle process, the use of Circles to repair harm, instructions for teachers engaging with restorative justice, and case studies of specific Circle experiences.

“Also notable in Circle in the Square is Reistenberg’s use of Circles as a means of violence prevention. All too commonly, schools and criminal justice systems exclude “violent offenders” from program participation. Often this is done because of the perception that violent behavior is beyond the pale of an intervention’s capacity to help out, repair, or even cure. Circles are not the only initiative that has successfully addressed violent behavior, but it is a leading example of how it can be done, and Reistenberg’s focus on it is especially helpful.

“Among the skills examined in this volume are Circle values, building Circles, the role of ceremony and storytelling, building confidentiality and trust, handling disclosures, reaching consensus, the free expression of feelings, and the use of Circles to address difficult topics.

“Reistenberg observes that restorative justice is about relationships, which are central to situations as diverse as run-of-the-mill disciplinary problems and deadly school shootings, all of which she has dealt with. About the latter, she notes, “Making connections with distrustful parents and community members was not a second thought but an essential act. The need for alternatives to suspension became very apparent during the recovery, as the inappropriate behaviors in the school were often tied to grief and trauma. Sending students away from school became less and less an option, because those children needed to be seen, heard, and supported.”

Russ Immarigeon, Co-author of After Crime and Punishment

This review originally appeared in the Journal of Community Corrections, Vol. XXI, No.3 (Spring 2012): 12-13. The Journal of Community Corrections, the quarterly publication of the International Community Corrections Association, is published by the Civic Research Institute.

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