Education Opinion

Schools Can Replace Gladiators With Mediators

By Moses S. Koch — April 02, 1986 7 min read

It has often been said that in education there is a 30- year lag between the conception of a good idea and its implementation. Occasionally, though, that timetable is telescoped. One such instance may be the introduction of student-mediated dispute resolution as a strategy for reducing behavior problems in elementary and secondary schools. That idea has been around less than five years, and the number of schools that have implemented it is still small. But early successes suggest that it’s an approach that may catch on--and deserves to.

This method of dealing with school-related disputes is a form of mediation in which the disputants voluntarily evolve a mutually acceptable resolution to their conflict. It is nonpunitive, nonjudgmental, and noncoercive. In most instances, the mediator is a student trained for that role. Usually, the disputants are students, though one of the parties may be a teacher or parent. The conflicts may range from fistfights between rival gang members to student-teacher arguments over class attendance. The point of the process is not to impart blame, administer “just” punishment, or furnish an externally prescribed solution. Nor is it a court of peers. Rather, the disputants are helped to come to an agreement on their own in an effort to prevent a recurrence of conflict.

Programs using this basic concept now exist in schools in locations as varied as Albuquerque, N.M., Cambridge, Mass., Chatham County, N.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Honolulu, Ithaca, N.Y., New York City, San Francisco, and Suffolk County, N.Y. The phenomenon has already led to a national organization-the National Association for Mediation in Education (N.A.M.E.)--and an information clearinghouse at the headquarters of the American Bar Association.

School mediation programs are part of a significant societal trend toward alternative means of resolving disputes. Dispute centers and mediation programs have been set up by corporations, neighborhoods, housing projects, hospitals, courts, and local governments--efforts that in some instances have been sponsored by major foundations, the A.B.A., or the National Institute for Dispute Resolution.

One typical school program--Project SMART (School Mediators’ Alternative Resolution Team), now operating at four high schools and one junior high school in New York City--consists of four basic elements: classroom seminars to generate campuswide interest, recruit mediators, and elicit cases; a 20-hour training program for students, parents, and teachers interested in becoming mediators; actual mediation of conflicts by those who have successfully completed the training; and follow-up reviews of all cases to discuss continuing problems and help in evaluating the project.

Schools report that the selection of students who volunteer for mediation training usually is based on a combination of factors, such as peer and staff recommendations, adequate representation of ethnic groups and both sexes, and leadership ability. It is interesting to note that academic standing generally has not been a criterion for selection. Those selected usually undergo a short, intensive training program, ranging in length from 15 to 25 hours. Most of the programs develop training manuals, which emphasize skills in communication, problem solving, critical thinking, teamwork, assertiveness, and conflict management.

Some programs, like the School Initiatives Program in San Francisco, provide curricular material that is adaptable to the study of conflict resolution in language-arts and social-studies courses in elementary and secondary grades.

What kinds of school problems can be and have been dissipated through mediation? The Middle Country Central School District in Suffolk County reports successful mediation of problems such as fighting, prejudice, harassment, and poor parent-child communication. Other schools have resolved disputes involving interracial slurs, gang disagreements, horseplay, poor sportsmanship, thefts, and incidents of taunts, gossip, and threats. More serious incidents-such as ones involving weapons or drugs--are handled through traditional disciplinary procedures, not mediation. Instances involving an adult disputant normally require an adult mediator teamed with a student mediator; Project SMART’s student- adult mediation teams have helped resolve student-parent and student-teacher disagreements on matters such as attendance, behavior, and curfews.

Normally, incidents of conflict are referred to a mediation coordinator (or the school’s vice principal) by administrators, counselors, teachers, nurses, attendance officers, students, or the local family court. The coordinator interviews the parties to determine whether the dispute is appropriate for mediation.

The mediator’s role is to hear both sides of the dispute and to encourage communication by helping the adversaries overcome emotions that may block a settlement. When the disputants are of different ethnic backgrounds, sometimes two students with those backgrounds are assigned to serve together as mediators. A mediation is considered successful when both parties sign an agreement containing the elements of their settlement. Occasionally, additional sessions are needed to reduce further tension or to clarify the terms of the agreement.

Let’s look at a sample case from the records of the SMART program:

In the locker room, Jill and Susan get into a fight when one of them blocks the other’s exit from her row. A coach stops the fight. The vice principal asks the girls if they would agree to mediation by a student mediator. With their consent, he calls in a trained classmate who meets with the two girls .

In less than two hours, Jill and Susan have ventilated their perceptions of the dispute and have evolved an agreement, which is then recorded and signed by the two of them and the mediator. The agreement states:

(1) They will say ''Excuse me” when trying to pass by someone, especially in the locker room.

(2) They will move out of the way when someone is trying to pass by, and not jump to conclusions just because they do not hear someone say ''Excuse me.”

(3) They will not call each other any derogatory names under any circumstances.

(4) They will not engage in any kind of fighting in or out of school.

At the adult level, this accord may appear superficial and probably transitory-and possibly seem like a self-serving attempt to avoid punishment. Nevertheless, follow-ups in school dispute-resolution programs show a consistently high rate of lasting reductions in disciplinary problems. For example, since the program’s inception at William Cullen Bryant High School in New York City, suspensions for fighting have dropped from 63 (in 1982-83) to 34 (in 1983-84) to 18 (in 1984- 85). Follow-up reviews indicate that more than 90 percent of the agreements have remained intact. Middle Country Central School District estimates a success rate of 90 percent in its student-mediation efforts. Similarly, early assessments in Albuquerque and elsewhere indicate that conflict-resolution practices have been accompanied by reductions in violence, vandalism, truancy, and dropout rates, resulting in less classroom tension and fewer teacher-student conflicts.

Does this sound like an ad for cure-all tablets? Or as brash as a TV commercial for used cars? So far, all the evaluations are that positive.

It should be noted, however, that early enthusiasm for the idea has been tempered by some criticism. For instance, most of its proponents concede that a mediation program cannot operate without a coordinator-and this means either hiring a new staff member or adding to the duties of a current one. And critics say mediation programs intrude on the time needed for academic instruction, and thus run counter to the back-to-basics movement.

But while the administrative costs of mediation have not yet been justified by cost-effectiveness studies, it seems reasonable to assume that by decreasing the waste of time and energy caused by behavior problems, such programs more than pay their own way. Those concerned with academic basics should note that the programs help develop skills education reformers consider essential, such as listening, problem solving, oral expression, and critical thinking. Mediation programs can also ease the burden on teachers confronted with disciplinary problems.

And learning to resolve conflicts should be an important part of everyone’s education. As Albie Davis, director of the Massachusetts District Court Mediation Project, and Kit Porter of the Harvard Graduate School of Education put it: “A growing number of educators ... believe that children are not truly educated if they are not prepared to deal with the disquieting, but empowering nature of conflict.

A version of this article appeared in the April 02, 1986 edition of Education Week