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Peer Mediation: When Students Agree Not To Disagree

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WASHINGTON--Sophomore Nikki Palmer said her trouble at Calvin Coolidge High School here began, as many teen-age problems do, "over a guy.''

The rest of her story--except for its resolution--follows a predictable course for romantic triangles at many schools.

A female classmate became jealous. Vicious rumors spread. Threats were made. And soon it looked as though the two 10th graders and their friends were destined to come to blows.

The dispute eventually landed on the desk of a school administrator. Many in similar situations might have suspended the young women, called in their parents, or spent hours trying to decipher who started what.

At Coolidge, there was an alternative.

The students were referred to the school's mediation center, where they sat down with classmates trained in the art of negotiation and promptly buried the hatchet. The resulting written contract, which called for both students to refrain from speaking to one another or listening to rumors, was hammered out in less than three class periods.

"I guess they did a pretty good job,'' Nikki said. "It was better than getting suspended and having a record.''

That, say Coolidge officials, is precisely the point of peer mediation.

"When you suspend a student for fighting, that person may go home to the neighborhood and start the same thing up again,'' said Joseph Kelliebrew, who coordinates the project, called SHARP, for Students Helping with Alternative Resolution Program.

"We don't want to temporarily bandage over the problem,'' he added. "We want a permanent resolution.''

SHARP is one of a growing number of peer-mediation programs in schools around the nation.

According to the National Association for Mediation in Education, at least 200 such programs are currently operating in elementary and secondary schools in large and small cities across the country.

And, buoyed by a recent national conference on the subject, advocates of the concept say they expect to see at least 100 more programs firmly established by the next school year.

Though program goals may vary from school to school, the approach is the same: to teach students the negotiation skills they need to settle conflicts peacefully.

"We're seeing an increase in violence as a way of dealing with conflict, not just in school but in communities as well,'' said Ann Gibson, the founder and executive director of NAME.

"More and more educators are concerned about that,'' she said, "and school-based mediation is one way to get at the problem.''

Evolution of a Movement

The concept of using formal dispute resolution as a way to control potentially violent interpersonal situations had its origins in the 1960's and early 1970's, but it did not take hold in the classroom until early in this decade.

Ms. Gibson credits three developments with spurring its adoption by a handful of schools around the country.

"In the early 1970's,'' she said, "there was a group of Quaker teachers who wanted to teach nonviolence in New York City schools--that's one piece of the history.''

Another, she said, was that "by the mid-1970's, educators were beginning to understand what it meant to teach in the context of a nuclear age.''

"Part of that included lessons on conflict resolution,'' she said.

But the real catalyst for the school-based mediation movement, Ms. Gibson added, was the success of community-based mediation centers.

These projects, born of public dissatisfaction with the legal system--and a realization on the part of such influential groups as the American Bar Association that the vast majority of disputes never reach a courtroom--had long been mediating conflicts between neighbors, landlords and tenants, citizens and government officials, and other adult disputants.

"In the early 1980's,'' Ms. Gibson said, "they began to say, 'these are lifelong skills we're teaching adults and what if we began teaching these skills to children?'''

The SHARP Idea

The genesis of SHARP at Coolidge High is typical of this third route to school-based mediation. The program was the brainchild of the Center for Dispute Settlement, a nonprofit agency that had been mediating adult disputes in this city for 15 years.

"We had a parent-adolescent mediation program that we had been doing a few years and we'd seen great success,'' said Edna Povich, director of the school project for CDS "We thought this would be an exciting area to get into.''

Coolidge, a school whose 1,300-member, mostly black, student body is drawn from all socioeconomic levels, was chosen because teachers and administrators there were receptive to the idea.

"There were outbursts here,'' said Mr. Kelliebrew, who works full-time as the program's only paid coordinator, "but I'm pretty sure that the number of fights was a lot higher at some other schools around the city.''

Costing approximately $30,000, the program was initially funded with grants from the Hitachi Foundation, the Phillip Stern Foundation, and Best Products Foundation. In the fall of 1986, SHARP opened for operation in the anteroom of an assistant principal's office.

Not 'An Elitist Group'

The 21 peer mediators currently in the program--all of whom underwent 14 hours of training--are recruited from a wide cross-section of Coolidge students.

"It's not like all jocks joining the football team,'' said one of the student mediators, 11th grader Robin Van Edwards. "We have drama-club people, cheerleaders, 'fashionable gents.''' The latter, she explained, are members of a fashion club at the school.

"I didn't want to make it an elitist group,'' said Mr. Kelliebrew.

Most of the disputes they mediate come to them because a school administrator has given the students a choice: either submit the matter to mediation or be suspended. As is the case with most peer-mediation programs, serious offenses and incidents involving drugs or weapons are handled through the school's traditional disciplinary channels.

"The most typical disputes are those that happen quickly,'' Mr. Kelliebrew said. "A student is walking down the hall and somebody pushes them and then a third person says, 'Johnny hit you and you're not doing anything about it.'''

Romantic triangles like Nikki Palmer's are also a common source of conflict.

"It may not seem like a big deal to us that a girl two-timed her boyfriend but, to a teen-ager, this is a very important matter,'' Mr. Kelliebrew said.

"And the students cannot find a place where they can go to discuss it because the peanut gallery follows them around looking for a fight,'' he added.

Once the student mediators and the warring parties sit down at the negotiating table, the ground rules are simple: "No interrupting another speaker. Be courteous. Write down your comments so that you can share them when it's time to tell your side of the story. And anything said remains confidential.''

The mediators also emphasize that the ultimate resolution to the conflict is up to the disputants.

"We're not a judge sitting out there or a lawyer,'' said Phillip Walker, who has mediated disputes among his classmates for two years.

Most of the time, the students and school officials say, agreements forged in mediation are not broken.

After SHARP's first year of operation, overall suspensions at Coolidge were reduced by 26 percent and fight-related suspensions decreased by 75 percent. And, though SHARP mediators have handled as many cases this year as they did in the previous year--approximately 40--a greater proportion of the disputes this year came to them before a fight had broken out, rather than afterwards.

Reducing Suspensions

"It's kept a lot of kids in school who would otherwise have been suspended,'' said Ronald Miller, an assistant principal.

As the self-described "bad guy'' at Coolidge, Mr. Miller is the administrator who handles most of the school's discipline cases.

"It's taken a lot of weight off me,'' he said, "and Mr. Kelliebrew gets better results 100 percent of the time.''

In addition, student mediators say that they find their new-found communication skills useful outside the classroom as well--in the cafeteria, on the playground, and even at home with their parents and siblings.

"I use it when I'm playing basketball and somebody gets an elbow in the face,'' Phillip Walker said. "I tell them that it's a physical game and people are going to be touching and hitting into each other.''

Undermining Authority?

SHARP mediators and school officials say that criticism of the program has come from a handful of teachers who fear that the approach will undermine their authority in the classroom.

Unlike many other school-based mediation programs, SHARP also tackles conflicts between students and teachers. In those cases, teacher mediators are included on the negotiating team.

"Some teachers might also be afraid that the process lends itself to abuse,'' Mr. Kelliebrew said.

"But students don't think that way,'' he added. "They don't think, 'I'm going to fight this person because I can mediate it in the SHARP program.'''

Partly as a result of SHARP's success, a peer-mediation program was established last year at one of the city's magnet schools, the Duke Ellington School of Fine Arts. Next fall, Mr. Kelliebrew plans to expand SHARP to an elementary school and a junior high school located near Coolidge.

Coolidge's program and the two new pre-high-school efforts will be funded next year by the Public Schools of the District of Columbia, according to Ms. Povich of the community center.

"Ultimately, the goal is always to have the school own the program,'' Ms. Gibson said. "It's not going to work if a school has to be constantly dependent on an outside source.''

A Record of Success

According to Ms. Gibson and other advocates of peer mediation, the approach has had similarly impressive track records in schools nationwide.

In New York City, for example, coordinators of school-based mediation programs said the process has helped reduce fight-related suspensions by 46 to 70 percent in the nine schools where it is used.

Called SMART, or School Mediators' Alternative Resolution Team, New York's program is considered the "Cadillac'' of school-based mediation programs, according to Ms. Gibson, and each participating school has a full-time coordinator on site. The five-year-old program was the model for Coolidge's program.

In Chicago, conflict resolution has become a mandatory part of the curriculum for 9th and 10th graders in all 67 of the city's high schools. Part of a program initially launched through the John Marshall School of Law, the program was funded during its start-up phase by the American Bar Association.

"Here, we're talking about the largest bar association in the country funding a program that teaches kids to resolve disputes without going to court,'' said Vivian Einstein Gordon, an assistant professor at John Marshall and the author of the textbook for the course.

She attributes the bar association's interest to research showing that "only a small percentage of [interpersonal-dispute] cases ever go to trial.''

"These are skills that kids can inculcate in their behavior patterns and employ throughout their lives,'' Ms. Gordon said.

Pamela Moore, who is heading efforts in New Mexico to set up 50 peer-mediation programs in Indian schools, juvenile-detention centers, and elementary and secondary schools, concurred.

"They're some of the most basic skills we need in whatever profession we endeavor,'' she said. "I consider them the fourth 'R.'''

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