Student Mediators Step in When Trouble Brews

SANTA FE, N.M. (ANS) — Rumor, gossip or a dirty look may be all that’s

needed to provoke a physical confrontation in school, said eighth-grader Amy Ortiz,

but the practice at her school of mediating differences as they arise has brought what

she believes is a significant decrease in the number of violent altercations.

Amy is one of a team of trained student and adult volunteers at Alameda

Middle School here who step in to mediate when needed.

Amy said her peers appreciate the sense of safety this creates at the school, and

students don’t view it as “ratting out” on friends if they anonymously report an

impending conflict. Any student or teacher who knows of trouble brewing can fill

out a form that usually results in mediation the same day.

“I can’t think of any mediation that was followed by later conflict between the

parties involved,” said assistant principal Denise Johnston. “We’re really keen on

mediation here.”

Johnston said she considers the mediation program a key element in the

school’s effort to create a safe environment for students, and this atmosphere in

turn contributes to keeping conflicts from becoming physical, or perhaps even

deadly.

Reflecting on the recent high school killings and suicides in Littleton, Colo.,

Johnston said: “There’s no one answer to stopping violence. It’s not one thing, but

a number of things.” She cited her school’s emphasis on mediation, along with a

“bully beware” program, as important elements in creating a school environment

where students feel comfortable talking out, rather than fighting over, their

differences.

“Mediation lets students explore their feelings and get to the root of the

problem, which is often something that happened a long, long time ago,” Johnston

said. “And my sense is that they’re learning skills that they can apply later.”

Jean Sidwell of the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution, which sets up

school mediation programs, said, “I think we’re going to find [in the Littleton

incident] that those kids were never engaged. Through mediation they have to be

engaged. I’m not saying it would necessarily have stopped what happened, but there

would have been a chance. Mediation brings people to a different plane of

relationship. I’m not sure those boys had the opportunity for that.”

According to student Amy, “Confidentiality is one of the most important

rules. Adult mediators don’t even tell (assistant principal) Ms. Johnston what goes

on in the sessions.” The final agreement between parties is put in writing, signed

and filed for future reference.

Specially trained students take on many of the potentially combative disputes,

but adult volunteers come in to handle the most complex and explosive cases, said

Amy. The adult volunteers, who supervise the program, are trained and dispatched

to six Santa Fe schools by the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution.

The goal of the program is not only to curtail violence, but to reduce the

number of suspensions that result from it.

The School Suspension Mediation Program generally provides mediation

when students have been, or may be, suspended because of a fight, or when a fight

seems likely. The same mediators also carry out student-teacher, teacher-teacher and

teacher-parent mediations when needed, said Sidwell, the center’s director of

training for the Santa Fe programs.

“If the student has been in a fight, we mediate before they return to school

after suspension,” Sidwell said. “The purpose is to get the issue resolved. In

suspension, the kid gets sent home, but they never really have the opportunity to sit

down and talk about what happened with the other parties.”

In place since 1991, the school mediation program has proved an undeniable

success, Sidwell said. “Administrators will tell you that almost every case is

resolved. They just don’t see those two students again.”

Despite the program’s success, it can be a hard sell to busy school

administrators, Sidwell said. “Once they understand that the issues get resolved

without their time, they embrace it,” she added, noting that mediations are time-

consuming, the average lasting over an hour.

Program volunteer Zenia Victor has spent many hours helping ferret out the

misunderstandings that often characterize potential fights.

“I haven’t found a bad kid yet, just unhappy ones,” she said. “I really don’t

think they want to have fights; they just don’t know how to get out of it. I have yet

to hear a kid say they want to fight. They say they have to. They’re willing to push if

they’re pushed, but there’s not one that likes it.”

When the students sit down with mediators, and often parents, they work

out an agreement that allows each to feel safe and unthreatened. “We’re giving

them an alternative to fighting,” Victor added. “And it seems to work almost a

hundred percent of the time.”

She said it’s particularly satisfying to see the shift in students’ postures as the

mediation takes place. “They go from having arms crossed, legs crossed, and

everything closed that can be closed. Then you see them begin to relax and open up.

They really do want to solve these things.”

Mediator Katharine Lee agreed. “The mediation is extremely helpful. It

provides students with tools for dealing with conflict.”

She added that like Ortiz and Victor, she has seen that many conflicts with

potentially violent outcomes result directly from what many might consider simple

misunderstandings often complicated by rumors and gossip.

For example, in one mediation she observed, two girls were headed for a fight

that would probably have included a number of their friends. After each had spoken

and the mediators asked questions, it turned out that one girl was annoyed at the

other for having interrupted her. But the potentially explosive problem resulted

when the second girl thought the first had treated her poorly because of a physical

characteristic. Once the second girl believed that her physical characteristic had

nothing to do with the disagreement, tensions dissolved.

“It’s so common-sensical,” Lee said, “but it takes a lot of patience and training

to go slowly enough and ask the right questions to facilitate effective

communication and reveal the issue.”

                        author

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