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School Violence Meets Civic Virtue

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In their efforts to reduce school violence, a few state and local governing bodies have passed measures urging schools to adopt conflict-resolution programs. Some have provided funds to encourage the programs. Last year, even the U.S. Congress was working on a similar type of resolution.

Despite such governmental interest, however, and despite supportive evaluation studies, a sizeable number of schools have not yet considered this promising violence-reduction strategy.

Known also as "conflict management,'' "mediation,'' and "dispute resolution,'' the process is student-operated, voluntary, and non-adversarial--without adult intervention and without institutional discipline. It can be done without much cost and has produced impressive results in the elementary, middle, and high schools that have adopted it. At one elementary school in Baltimore, for example, instances of aggressive and disruptive behavior fell from 228 to 84 in the program's first year. Playground fighting decreased by 75 percent.

I work with the Sheppard Pratt Hospital Community Education Programs in Baltimore, which, since 1989, have been helping schools and universities in our area adopt conflict management as a practice among students, and as a component in their curricula. I have been able to visit schools and see the process at work. From my anecdotal evidence, I can say without hesitation that the model of conflict resolution we are trying to effect is a force that can help transform hostile unsafe environments into nurturing communities.

The program focuses on selecting and training certain students as "conflict managers,'' then letting them mediate the day-to-day disputes that arise among their peers--and that chronically unnerve teachers and principals. Central to the program is the idea that a mediator's role lies not in prescribing solutions, but in guiding the parties of the dispute to their own solutions.

Frequently, "trouble makers'' can be transformed into dependable conflict managers. One such student at a middle school recently told me, "If this [mediation] gets them when they're young, they won't end up shooting each other.'' Three 5th-grade girls who had been feuding all year at another school expressed remarkably similar sentiments. One of them said, "We would fight each other and maybe one day kill each other. [But since mediation,] we haven't fist-fighted for a long time.''

Sounds ideal? A workable approach to school fights that involves no escalation, no adult intervention, no injury, no cheering onlookers, no detention, no suspension? Conflict resolution doesn't always work, but schools are finding that it succeeds in a substantial majority of cases mediated by students who are adequately trained in conflict management. Generally, an agreement the children negotiate themselves holds up. The antagonists have made an investment in the process. As one 5th-grade girl put it, "Kids understand kids. They can help each other get it together better 'cause teachers don't understand where we're coming from.'' Her candid response reflects a major reason why the program works: the students' perception of conflict managers as peers, not authority figures, and as helpers rather than critics.

How conflict resolution is adopted and how it works depend largely on the individual school. There is considerable latitude among the schools presently using it. Without a rigid prescribed structure, a set of general practices is emerging to give schools considering the strategy some basic guidelines.

Usually, the initial impetus in conflict management comes from a few faculty members. After the school decides to institute a program, a frequent approach is to ask teachers to volunteer for training. (Compensation is a matter of local policy.) A core group of from 10 to 20 teachers (depending on the size of the school) is then trained in mediation strategies, usually in a 14- to 16-hour program. Normally, a community or area "mediation center'' (these quasi-public centers exist in many cities, often sponsored by bar associations, foundations, and/or local governments) can provide the training. If no local mediation-training service is available, trainers can be sought elsewhere. (Good sources for information might be the several organizations doing work in this area, such as the National Association for Mediation in Education, located in Amherst, Mass.)

After the core of teachers has been trained, a team of three or four of those teachers trains the student mediators. One of the trained teachers, as a mentor, then coordinates the mediation program on a part-time basis.

Before the program becomes operational, the school, in ways of its own choosing, familiarizes all students with mediation as a conflict-solving process. For example, this can be done in assemblies or through direct classroom demonstrations or videotapes. Students then nominate peers to be trained as conflict managers. They are told that they need not restrict nominations to model students or popular leaders, but may also nominate chronic fighters if they feel those schoolmates have leadership qualities, or they may nominate themselves. From the nominees, the school selects a representative cohort to be trained, aiming for an ethnic cross-section of the school population, including some chronic troublemakers. (In elementary schools, candidacy is usually limited to the upper three grades.)

At least one school in my area has capitalized on the selection process as a potential learning experience. Nominees who want to be selected for mediation training must complete an application and undergo an interview. The school announces each morning the names of mediators on duty that day, thus investing the program with status, and the mediators with recognition.

Training is voluntary. Those chosen take a 15- to 20-hour training program that stresses communication skills, particularly listening and reflecting on what has been said. The program teaches the students how to restrain bias and how to establish trust, credibility, and cooperation.

Training usually proceeds then to the skills that will enable the mediators to coax possible solutions from the students in conflict, get the parties to engage in critical review of those solutions, and, finally, negotiate the selection of the most feasible solution.

After they are trained, conflict managers usually work in pairs, assigned to duty in areas where conflicts ordinarily occur, such as the playground, the cafeteria, and in the halls. When on duty, they wear an identifying symbol, normally a T-shirt emblazoned with "Conflict Manager'' or "Mediator.''

When adults or students observe a conflict escalating, they may ask the antagonists if they want to have their problem mediated. If the parties agree, arrangements are made for them to meet as soon as possible with a team of two mediators in a quiet designated area.

The mediators first cite the ground rules, to which all disputants must agree before mediation can proceed: Tell the truth. Do not interrupt. No name calling. Work on the problem. Then one of the disputants tells what happened as he or she sees it, followed by the other giving his side of the story. Conflict managers may ask questions to clarify matters, but they are trained not to take sides and not to be judgmental.

Usually, after each party to the dispute has described the problem, discussion follows, during which the mediators help each side understand the other's view. Gradually, the antagonists are led to suggest solutions. In most instances, realistic agreements are reached in 10 or 15 minutes, although in senior high schools agreements usually take longer.

The process concludes with the four parties signing a statement containing the agreement, and with the conflict managers congratulating the antagonists for having solved their problem successfully.

What about costs? "Aye, a coordinator, there's the catch,'' some will say. "More administrative overhead, more bureaucracy, more paperwork.'' Or "Another volunteer duty? Not me!'' "It's not in the contract.''

Obviously cost is a central issue to be faced early. A school should not undertake a conflict-management program without the resources of at least a quarter-time or half-time mentor (depending on the size of the school population and the intensity of day-to-day violence).

To minimize costs, some schools have successfully used parents or retired teachers as volunteer mentors. One elementary school in Baltimore has used both these resources--a parent, and a former teacher--in administering its program.

The mentor must oversee all aspects of the program, which would include: orienting the program to students, parents, faculty, and staff; administering the process of selecting and assigning mediators; arranging for and coordinating student training; developing and maintaining a duty schedule for mediators; assessing the quality of each mediator; conducting periodic upgrade training of mediators; initiating and conducting "next-generation'' training of new mediators; keeping faculty informed and soliciting faculty response; and evaluating the program.

If the mentor is to be paid, that salary is the major cost of the program. Other costs, such as supplies, phone, and so on are usually assimilated, even in these tight-budget times.

To defray initial costs, some schools have successfully sought a grant, particularly from local foundations, businesses, and in a few instances, regional bar associations.

From on-site experience as well as from the literature, I can say that schools instituting a conflict-resolution program can expect most or all of the following outcomes:

Students, first of all, will learn to:

  • Take responsibility for their own behavior.
  • Improve communication skills.
  • Fulfill relevant social responsibilities.
  • Increase involvement in civic activities.
  • Improve self concept.

For the teachers, the process will:

  • Improve classroom and school ambience.
  • Release time and energy for teaching.
  • Build perception and communication skills.
  • Increase options for response to conflict.

For administrators, it will:

  • Reduce the volume of behavior problems they must handle.
  • Improve school morale.
  • Secure additional options in handling behavior problems.

Negative evaluations of conflict resolution are infrequent, but some initial objections to a program may arise. They include comments like these: "There is not time in the school schedule.'' "It isn't advisable in view of the current need to prepare for standardized tests.'' "It is too costly in terms of teachers' time.'' "There is no budget for a mentor.'' "It is too idealistic.'' "There is not room in the curriculum.'' "It is a superficial effort to address symptoms rather than causes of conflict.'' "Some kids see it as a gimmick.''

But the remark of an administrator in one of the middle schools I visited is more typical. Mediation must be taught in schools, he said, "If not, you grow from fists to guns.''

The evidence I have seen is that students familiar with mediation techniques grow not "from fists to guns,'' but from unfocused rage to structured understanding of conflict. At a Washington high school, for example, a chronic fighter who was an at-risk student became a mediator, graduated with his class, and went on to college. At a Baltimore middle school, students now ask for mediation of their disputes; they don't have to be prompted. And at an elementary school P.T.A. meeting in Baltimore recently, parents remarked that their children have started mediating sibling disputes at home and even parental disagreements.

Learning to handle conflict in this fashion teaches children life-long skills and society is ultimately the beneficiary.

Benjamin Barber, in his book Strong Democracy, says this: "Strong democratic theory begins but does not end with conflict: It acknowledges conflict but ultimately transforms rather than accommodates or minimizes it.''

If this is so, those schools with student-mediated dispute resolution may be transforming school violence into school virtue.

Moses S. Koch is the founding President Emeritus of Essex Community College in Baltimore County, Md., and the former president of Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y. He is now resident educational consultant for the Sheppard Pratt Hospital Community Education Programs in Baltimore.

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