High profile episodes of school violence such as those in Littleton, Colorado, Paducah,
Kentucky and Springfield, Oregon, have increased the public’s awareness and concern about
violence in our schools. With the focus on the damaging results of violence and over reliance on
formal legal measures, students who are involved in even minor conflict may find themselves in
detention, suspended, expelled or referred to court. The option of teaching students alternative
conflict resolution skills instead is often over looked despite its greater success in achieving
Conflict resolution skills should be a fundamental part of schools’ curriculum, discipline
approach, and management style: studies have consistently found that the more conflict
resolution techniques permeate the atmosphere and curriculum in schools, the greater the
decrease in violence, improvement in classroom management, and enhancement of students’
social and emotional development.(1)
In contrast, punitive approaches, such as “Zero Tolerance
Policies” applied in such a way as to cover infractions that pose little or no real danger, (2)
information dissemination, “fear arousal” and “moral appeal” are largely ineffective. (3) Other
important factors, such as the correlation between discipline problems and crime with the ratio
of child-to-teacher, are beyond the scope of this article.(4)
Media sensationalism has resulted in a false perception of the nature of conflict both in
society in general and in schools. Although murder accounts for 0.4 percent of all reported
crime, it accounts for nearly half of all TV news reporting.(5) This bias in coverage is reflected in
recent survey results showing 71% of Americans thought school shooting likely in their schools,
despite the odds of a school-aged child being killed in school in 1998-1999 being one in two
The violence experienced by children is not about schools themselves, but a reflection of
our society. In fact, most of the violence youth experience occurs not in school, but afterwards,
with violent crime among youth greatest between 3:00-4:00 p.m. on school days.(7) The extent of
youth exposure to violence is alarming: 77% of high schools, 74% of middle schools, and 45%
of elementary schools reported witnessing one or more violent incidents during 1996-1997.(8) Ten
percent of high school students reported carrying a weapon (e.g., gun, knife, or club) on school
property the month preceding the survey, typically for self-protection. Five percent of high
school students stayed home at least once in the month prior to a Youth Risk Behavior Survey
due to fear of school-related violence.(9)
Who commits acts of violence? Self-report studies have repeatedly confirmed that
virtually all youths have committed delinquent acts, with participation in fist fighting being
particularly common.(10) Additionally, more subtle tactics, such as name-calling or ostracizing,
can cause greater emotional harm than physical assaults. Such tactics have even resulted in
suicide.(11) Physical and emotional bullying are not limited to males: females are involved in
3/4th of the 5.7 million cases of children abused annually.(12) Students with disabling conditions
are particularly easy targets of punitive measures – perhaps because it is easier to catch the child
with a disorder, such as ADHD, who immediately retaliates to taunts, rather than the student
who uses more subtle tactics or can delay their revenge until after school. (In fact, in 95% of the
cases in which children receiving special education services were suspended, it was for
nonviolent behavior.(13)) Minority students are also greatly over represented in the “Zero
Tolerance Policy” punitive excesses.(14) Yet, a recent study found that the high profile school
shooters have been middle-class, physically healthy, Caucasian students of average or above
average academic achievement who have no history of serious school or conduct problems.
What they had in common was that each incident was precipitated by discipline or rejection,
each shooter was suicidal, and each felt himself to be a social outcast, teased or victimized.(15)
Despite its potential harm, conflict is a natural part of life. Conflicts can be as small as
what to watch on T.V. to as large as who will be the next president.(16) Conflicts come from
misunderstandings, from competing interests, and from scarcity of resources or services.
Conflict is not the culprit: how we respond to it is the issue. This is especially true where
relationships are ongoing, such as school, the workplace, and families. Destructive conflict can
result in violence, loss of friendship, or unnecessary legal bills. Cultural beliefs, such as that
one should not intervene in another’s fights, have also been found to promote violence. On the
other hand, constructive conflict can lead to innovation, better communication and
improvements in the status quo for all concerned.
Common responses to conflict are either aggressive, such as fights, insults, threats, or
law suits, or passive, such as ignoring the conflict, walking away, refusing to listen, or giving in.
Another common approach is to demand or expect the solution to come from an authority figure,
such as a parent, teacher, principal, or judge. While each of these responses is appropriate
under some circumstances, a collaborative approach to conflict is often the most appropriate
and sometimes only method to obtain satisfactory, long-term results.
One collaborative approach gaining tremendous recognition in this country is mediation.
Courts throughout the United States are now routinely requiring parties, especially in divorce
cases, to submit to mediation. Mediation has been consistently shown to result in high rates of
settlement, with far greater compliance to the agreements entered into voluntarily than to court
orders. After the shooting sprees by postal workers, mediation was introduced to resolve
employment disputes within the postal service. The success rate was so phenomenal that now
virtually all federal agencies have alternative dispute resolution programs.
What is mediation and how does it apply to conflicts in schools, either between students
or between parents and schools? In theory, mediation is deceptively simple. One or two trained,
neutral mediators control the process of reaching resolution, while the parties control the solution
reached. Rather than seeking to assess blame, as in litigation, the emphasis is on the future.
Surprisingly, children can be as adept at being mediators as adults, because their understandings
of the facts are often developmentally appropriate to the disputes between children.
There are four basic steps in mediation. First, the participants must agree to try to reach
an agreement and to abide by certain rules, such as no name-calling and interrupting. Second, the
participants each provide their perspective of the facts. The mediator(s) attempts to both truly
understand what the speaker is communicating and make the speaker feel understood.(17)
Attention is also placed on understanding and communicating the speaker’s feelings. The
mediator(s) helps the participants distinguish between positions and interests. For example, the
parents’ position might be that their child should attend a different school, while their interest
might be having a specific educational need of their child met or having their child accepted
more by his or her peers. Only after the interest is known can all options be explored. It is
amazing how effective this seemingly, simple second step is at helping participants understand
the situation and preparing them for the next steps. Third, the participants brainstorm possible
solutions. The fourth and final step is for the participants to agree upon a solution, with the
mediator’s role being to assure the solution selected is feasible, concrete, and precise. Mediators
are also entrusted with insuring the participants are respectful of one another and evening the
playing field when one participant has less power or information than the other.
In conflict resolution education, the skills used in mediation are learned experientially and
applied to different situations. Students have hands-on lessons on active listening,
communication approaches, conflict styles, anger management, conflict escalation and de-escalation, perspective taking, positions and interests, brainstorming, win-win problem solving,
negotiation, and mediation. Students learn that the process can be as important as the result.
Compare for yourself the difference in your reaction to being told by your spouse that you are
moving to having a discussion in which you both agree moving is best. Compare also your
comfort level if you and your spouse disagree, but both feel certain through your arsenal of
problem solving skills you will ultimately reach agreement.
Students also learn by observing adults’ behavior. The most successful approach includes
infusing conflict resolution skills at the classroom-level, school-wide and in interactions with
parents.(18) Yet, many school administrators react to parents’ concerns by ignoring them or
informing parents that their only option is legal recourse. In fact, mediation is currently being
conducted between parents and schools very successfully, primarily in special education matters.
With conflict a familiar part of the human experience, schools are consciously or
unconsciously teaching methods of conflict resolution. The only question is what method is
being taught. Simply punishing students for conflict neglects the responsibility to educate and
passes the problem to society in general. Consider for example that students who are suspended
are three times as likely to drop out as their peers.(19) Allowing one youth to leave high school for
a life of crime and drug abuse costs society $2 million!(20) Spending the time and money to
provide conflict resolution education is a smarter investment.
1. Jones, T., Ph.D. “Conflict Resolution Education: Goals, Models, Benefits and
(2000), Temple University – summarizing research findings by U.S. Department of Education.
2. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University (2000) “Opportunities Suspended: The
Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Procedures”; Asherman, J.
“The Unnecessary Detention of Children in the District of Columbia” Volume3, n.2 District of
Columbia Law Review 311 (Fall 1995).
3. “Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn’t, What’s Promising”, A REPORT TO THE
UNITED STATES CONGRESS, Prepared for the National Institute of Justice by Lawrence W.
Sherman, Denise Gottfredson, Doris MacKenzie, John Eck, Peter Reuter, and Shawn Bushway
4. “School Violence, Risk, Prevention Intervention & Policy”by Daniel J. Flannery, Kent State
University & University Hospitals of Cleveland (December 1997).
5. Livingston, J. “Crime & Criminology” Prentice Hall (1992), pg. 30.
6. Brooks, K., Schiraldi, V. and Ziedenberg, J. (April 2000), “School House Hype: Two Years
Later”, Justice Policy Institute and Children’s Law Center, Inc.
7. “Violence After School”, 1999 National Report Series, Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention (November 1999)
8. “Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-1997,” National Center for
Education Statistics, 1998.
9. “Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1997 Update on Violence,” Office of Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention, 1997.
10. Empey, L. & Stafford, M. “American Delinquency” (1991, 3rd Ed.) pg. 95-97.
11. “Sticks and Stones” By Kathy Watson, from myprimetime.com.
12. Adler, F., Mueller, G. & Laufer, W. “Criminology”, Second Edition (1995), pg. 84;
“Children as Victims”, 1999 National Report Series, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency
Prevention (May 2000).
13. Brooks, K., Schiraldi, V. and Ziedenberg, J. (April 2000), “School House Hype: Two Years
Later”, Justice Policy Institute and Children’s Law Center, Inc.
14. The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University (2000) “Opportunities Suspended: The
Devastating Consequences of Zero Tolerance and School Discipline Procedures”
15. “The Classroom Avenger”, by James P. McGee, Ph.D. and Caren R. DeBernardo, Psy.D.,
Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Health System (2000). Each of the shooters had also clearly
communicated their intent prior to the incidents.
16. “The Election: Chaos Theory; How to Stop Worrying and Love the Limbo,” by Dan Barry
(New York Times, Week in Review, Nov. 12, 2000), quoting mediators including the author.
17. “Student Resolving Conflict: Peer Mediation in Schools”, by Richard Cohen
19. Brooks, K., Schiraldi, V. and Ziedenberg, J. (April 2000), “School House Hype: Two Years
Later”, Justice Policy Institute and Children’s Law Center, Inc.
20. “Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1999 National Report,”(NCJ 178257) Office of Juvenile
Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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