Sitting in their guidance counselor's small office, the students were soft-spoken, polite, almost deferential.
Without knowing why thestudents had been assembled, it would be hard to guess what they hadin common.
But this group of boys and girls from MacArthur Middle School in Fort Meade had been gathered to discuss fighting. Each had been in fights serious enough to warrant suspension.
At MacArthur, however, they were given another option -- attending a program on conflict resolution.
The students, most of them under directives from their parents, chose the classes.
Blondell Mason, a MacArthur guidance counselor, said he and other counselors put together two hourlong classes to stress that all conflicts need not be resolved through physical aggression. That idea, simple as it sounds, is something some of the students had never considered, he said.
"Some of the students saidthey felt forced into fights. They had to go along to maintain theirreputations. They saw no other way out," he said.
The program at MacArthur is the only one of its kind in the county, although other schools are considering similar efforts. A handful of schools have organized peer-mediation programs, in which students help other studentsresolve their differences before they escalate into violence.
"The entire school system, and all the principals, have been very sensitive to this problem," said MacArthur Principal John Kozora, who came up with the idea. "We have programs for drug and alcohol abuse and for smoking. I thought we should look at developing programs for kids involved in physical altercations."
Youngsters get only one shot atthe program, which includes group discussions about fighting, resolving conflict and building self-esteem.
Students involved in subsequent fights will be suspended, Kozora said. He requires students and parents to sign a contract stating that they understand the rules.
Since starting the program last year, Kozora said suspensions for fighting have been cut by one-third.
The conflict resolution classes, run by the guidance counselors after school, are offered every other week. On average, about six students attend each session, Mason said. In just two school years, the counselors estimated, more than 100 students have gone through the program at the 975-student school.
Students who have completed the program say it was the right approach, particularly since they hadn't considered other ways to resolve their conflicts before.
Many times, minor incidents resulted in knockdown fights. One boy who had been through the program said his fight started over a volleyball game in gym class. Another boy said he cameto blows after a student in his homeroom criticized his clothes.
Whether two hours of class will change behavior in the long run remains to be seen. Most of the students said that if pushed hard enough or insulted badly enough, they would still fight.
But, as one girl in the group put it, at least now she had something to think about before resorting to fighting when the next conflict arises.
"This teaches students how to avoid fighting," she said. "So if they want to,at least they know how."
: Counselor Blondell Mason says studentsoften "feel forced into fights."